Transplanted Human Brain Cells Make Mice Smarter: Bioethicists Wring Hands

A team of tesearchers at the University of Rochester led by biologist Steven Goldman transplanted early stage versions of human brain cells that make up the white matter in our brains into neonatal mice. The human glial cells thrived.

As reports:

Human glia are far more complex than mouse glia, and they help form many, many more connections, called synapses, between neurons. The more synapses, the faster and better the brain works. Tests in lab dishes showed the mouse brains with human cells transmitted signals much more quickly than normal mouse brains.

“So here we have these brains where most of the glia are human. And we know that human glia are different from those of most of other species,” Goldman says. “Have their cognitive abilities been enhanced?”

The answer is, yes. The Rochester researchers tested their human/murine chimeras and found that they learned more quickly to avoid electric shocks and how to escape a maze than do normal mice.

The point of the research is not to create super-pests that can more easily evade mouse traps or steal cheese, but to probe the sources of various human nervous system diseases.

Predictably, New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan issues the preemptory bioethical call for more regulations:

"This experiment is the ethical equivalent of Superstorm Sandy," Caplan says. "It brings together a controversial source of stem cells -- obtained from aborted fetuses to create human-animal chimeras which frighten many members of the public and Congress.  The utility of the work for understanding diseases and the development of therapies for them is enormous but it is vitally important that an agreed upon, transparent and enforced set of rules and review processes be instituted to govern further research using stem cells from humans in animal brains or vice versa."

Unfortunately, a number of states - Louisiana, Arizona, Oklahoma - have already transparently agreed to enforce bans on such scientific research.

The plain fact is that people chiefly learn from trial-and-error, not from precautionary wisdom dispensed from on high by bioethical sages sitting in their endowed academic chairs. To the extent that regulations are needed, they should generally be formulated and adopted in response to what researchers, the public, and policymakers learn from scientific investigations, not based on vague fears gendered by icky-sounding experiments.

In this case, human fetal brain cells were used, but future experiments might well use less controversial stem cell sources like induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) fashioned from mature skin cells.

For background, see my columns, "Brownback's Chimerical Attempt to Curb Science," "Senators Brownback and Landrieu Want to Outlaw Centaurs and Minotaurs," and "Ohio Senate Votes to Ban Minotaurs."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • A Serious Man||

    This is just like the plot of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

  • Zeb||

    That's just what I was thinking.

  • BlogimiDei||

    Now, we need a Secret of NIHM remake. Or maybe "The Secret of UofR"

  • Zeb||

    If they remade it to be less stupid and more like the book, I could get behind that.

  • amelia||

    My first thought too. I love that book!

  • ||

    But Frisby passed on his intelligence to his children. Maybe the rats did as well.

    The methods described above would not allow that.

    Of course Mr Fisby was super smart as well even though she was just a stupid field mouse and did not get the super soldier serum...i might be over thinking it.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Why not Flowers for Algernon?

  • Name Nomad||

    Too depressing. We already get enough of that daily.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    It would have to be "Flowers from Algernon" if the mice get much smarter.

  • Ted S.||

    Wouldn't the mice have to revert to form because the procedure ultimately fails?

  • LTC(ret) John||

    And it squeaks a sad little "give these flowers to Charly" and shambles off to get caught in a simple mouse trap?

  • ||


  • ||

    Seriously? " ...stem cells -- obtained from aborted fetuses to create human-animal chimeras." That's the best fear mongering imagery you can come up with? I've read better in SF's Supernatural fanfic.

    Oh yeah, fuck off slaver.

  • rts||

    human-animal chimeras which frighten many members of the public and Congress

    What the fuck?

    Save us, O bioethicist, from the smart mice! I'm so frightened of progress!

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Hey, pal - when your cat vanishes without a trace, you'll be clamoring for government oversight, just you wait and see!!1!1!

  • Doctor Whom||

    human-animal chimeras which frighten many members of the public and Congress

    Members of Congress need not be frightened. No one will ever want to harvest their brain cells to make another organism smarter.

  • ||

    +1 leukotome

  • Ska||

    Senator Abby Something.

  • LTC(ret) John||


  • AlmightyJB||

    I welcome our rodent overlords.

  • kinnath||

    So is there hope for Joe Biden after all?

  • BakedPenguin||


  • Generic Stranger||

    Still too far away from a total brain transplant.

  • kinnath||

    I was hoping that he might be able to salvage a career sweeping floors someplace after the Obamanator is thrown into a vat of molten metal.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    I'll see your mouse brain and raise you one rat's ass

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Sorry I don't give a rat's ass.

  • ||

    I knew it, you just want to keep all that rat ass to yourself! You bastard!

  • ||

    Clearly you are all forgetting Deep Blue Sea. Tran-species tinkering leads directly to Sammy J getting eaten by sharks. I rest my case.

  • ||

    Also, spoiler alert.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Gosh, and I was going to watch that cinematic classic tonight, but now it's ruined for me, jesse. Ruined!

  • ||

    "This experiment is the ethical equivalent of Superstorm Sandy," Caplan says. "It brings together a controversial source of stem cells -- obtained from aborted fetuses to create human-animal chimeras which frighten many members of the public and Congress."

    This is such hysterical pearl-clutching that I can truly only laugh. You know what, Caplan? I even saw headlines at the time calling Sandy a FRANKENSTORM. Why did you not use that?!?

  • ||

    The Frankenstorm only wanted to be loved, it is we who are the monsters.

  • ||

    Uh oh, jesse, you just fell into the classic Frankenstein trap. I'll forgive you...for a potato price.

  • ||

    Ooh, I did. You may claim your thrice-fatted potato prize at any one of my one locations in the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    So Pinky, what are we going to do tonight?

  • Ken Shultz||

    Same thing we do every night.

    Try to take over the world.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    +1 Brain

  • Bardas Phocas||


  • ||

    Why do I get this feeling that bioethicists are academic moral entrepreneurs?

  • Killazontherun||

    When I first started reading about the discipline in the late 1980's I knew they were up to no damn good. They start from a zero sum, and every advantage you get is at the expense of someone else. If you live to be a 100, it's because 12 eight year old orphans in Bengali had to die to bear the price of keeping you healthy.

  • NeonCat||

    Since the vast majority of people pretty much agree that acting like Mengele or Unit 731 is wrong I'm guessing bioethicists really don't have much to do. So they oppose everything or they'd have no justification for their careers or, indeed, their lives.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Look at me, I've got a degree that makes me more moral than you are."

    We have all sorts of government sanctioned and sanctioning priesthoods, but this one is the most transparent.

  • Hyperion||

    I for one, welcome our new rodent overlords.

  • Hyperion||

    I mean, sure, they're beady eyed and creepy, and you can't trust them, just like our current leaders. But at least these new leaders will have a few brain cells.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Creepier than Henry Waxman? Hail, rodentia!

  • Hyperion||

    You mean the half pig man foretold of in a quatrain of Nostradamus?

  • LTC(ret) John||


  • AlmightyJB||

    This story would be better with bats.

  • ||

    Then we'd have Mr. Bioethicist here telling us we're risking a vampire apocalypse.

  • NeonCat||

    Thank goodness cats are still on our side (as much as cats are on anyone's side, granted). Planet of the Mice, feh!

  • Killazontherun||

    My favorite kitty just called to tell me she loves me. I thought it was sweet until I started to wonder where she got the phone.

  • ||

    Psht, we had a rat problem recently. My roommate's cat was entirely disinterested in solving it. Rats are beneath her, she only feels alive when she's hunting raccoons.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    "Rats are beneath her, she only feels alive when she's hunting raccoons."

    WTF? Is that "cat" a mountain lion or something?!

  • ||

    Nope, she's actually pretty small (though chubby). She comes home with claw marks across her face and scabs behind her ears and on her tail. We always thought she was fighting with the neighborhood cats, until I came home and she was kicking the ass of a raccoon that was about 1.3x her size.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Jesus Bouncing Christ on a pogo stick. That is one odd cat.

  • sarcasmic||

    What would happen if someone transplanted human brain cells into Tony's head?

  • LTC(ret) John||


  • Killazontherun||

    Plants make bees remember them fondly with a jolt of caffeine.

    Goddamn the pusherdandelion.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Terrific, now we are going to start seeing mini-Starbucks inside of flowers.

  • phandaal||

    "Which frighten many members of the public and Congress."

    Sounds like... well, anything new, ever.

  • Bobarian||

    Mice are merely the protrusion into our dimension of hyper-intelligent pan-dimension beings who, unbeknownst to the human race, are the most intelligent species on the planet Earth. They spent a lot of their time in laboratories running complex experiments on man.

    I look forward to the outcome of their current experiments...

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Instead of taking brain cells from aborted fetuses, why not take the brains of people who get shot by police while answering the door? Or people who got drone-struck by assassin-bots? That wouldn't be morally problematic, would it?

  • Paul.||


    Is that like the dirty tricks committee for the Kochs?

  • SumpTump||

    Whoa no way dude, I think its tome to roll with it.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.