Over the course of their Wellcome Hub residency (2017-18), artist Charlie Murphy, science writer Philip Ball, BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh and clinical neurologist Professor Nick Fox participated in Professor Selina Wray’s molecular research to investigate how the brain works and how different dementias function on a cellular level.
Envisaged as a novel way to open up and share their experiences with wider public audiences, the Brains in A Dish (BiaD) team have developed innovative new ways to share important insights into dementia research. Each participant has donated a small sample of their skin to Professor Wray’s cutting edge dementia research .
Observing the extraordinary transformation of their skin cells into functioning brain cells in the lab, they followed their cells’ journeys through each stage of the culturing processes ‘in a dish’ – learning about the critical differences in growth and degeneration between their cells and those cells affected by Frontal Temporal Dementia (FTD) and familial Alzheimer’s disease (fAD).
Inspired by their dialogues with lab staff and members of Rare Dementia Support groups, the BiaD team have developed multiple innovative responses which inform and encourage debate on the profound metaphysical, ethical, legal and personal questions raised by this rapidly expanding field of bio-technology.
“The fact that I’ve seen a piece of my arm grow into something resembling a miniature brain doesn’t in any way lessen the weirdness of it. Understanding the biology is one thing; it’s quite another to watch your skin cells be reprogrammed into a state capable of growing into any tissue of the body, and then guided to become neurons that link up into communicating networks. Are these entities a piece of me, or have they taken on a life of their own? We don’t yet know the practical limitations of this new technology, which can produce not only tiny organ-like structures but also something resembling entire embryos. Our flesh is evidently more versatile than, until a decade and a half ago, we ever appreciated. It harbours many designs and capabilities, and we’ve only just begun to explore them – and their medical, social, ethical and philosophical implications.”
Philip Ball, author and broadcaster, 2022
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