The quest to build a brain in the lab

"I’m a neuroengineer, and one of my goals is building brains."
Prof Steven Potter was disarmingly understated as he introduced himself. It’s not that tissue engineering is unusual. Nor even that doing it with neural cells should be an issue.
If heart cells or skin cells can be reprogrammed, why not neurons? But "building brains" had been my flip way of labelling an intriguing, indeed unnerving, branch of science: the neurophysiology of disembodied brain-cell cultures. It was not a term I was expecting a serious scientist to turn to, as I set out on making "Build Me a Brain" for BBC Radio 4’s Frontiers Programme.
Yet Steven Potter, professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, is insistent that words like "brain" and "mind" belong to his endeavour.
"One of the ways in which I differ from a lot of neuroscientists is to believe that there’s a spectrum of minds. There isn’t some point where the mind suddenly is there," he said.
"I think that there is a different amount of mind in different animals. And even in you, whether you’ve had your coffee or not, whether you’re asleep or awake.
"There are always different levels of how much mind you have. So you could carry it all the way down to the cultured network, there is still some sort of proto-mind in there."
The key tool in the Potter lab is the "multi-electrode array", an upgraded version of the traditional Petri dish used in microbiology labs around the world, improved by the addition of an array of electrical contacts the researchers can use to "listen" in to the electrical activity of the neural cells.
Another researcher likens the device to an EEG, the electroencephalogram that clinicians use to check a patient’s brain activity.