Scientists Make Mini-Brains Out of Skin Cells

CNN reports:

"Researchers used human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells) [to produce cerebral organdies or mini-brains]. Both embryonic stem cells and IPS cells have the ability to turn into any part of the body. But embryonic stem cells are very controversial because in the process of retrieving them for research, the 4- or 5-day-old embryo they are taken from is destroyed. IPS cells don't come with the same controversy because scientists take a cell -- typically a skin cell -- then coax it using a chemical bath to revert to a state that resembles a developing embryo."

Mini-brains out of skin.  Skinthink is now fact.


Octopus is a Construct (& the Matter of Thinking Skin)

Neural tribe that we are, we take our origins in skin (see Skin of Being blog series).  Embryologically,   brain (CNS) begins as an invagination/enfolding of a skin patch called neural crest or neural plate.  I have previously blogged about the connection between melanocytes (pigment-filled cells) and neurons: both sport dendritic processes and apparently use some of the same molecular signaling dynamics.  I have also recently quoted Andre Virel who spoke of the reflective nature of the skin, likening skin (and the resultant mind) to a magic, information-processing mirror of reality.  

Now, let's take a look at some of our neural kin that occupy octopus body-form. 

Octopuses are notorious for making themselves invisible, i.e. for skillfully camouflaging themselves.  Such an ability is what I'd call Surface Intelligence, Zen-like spontaneity of adaptation.    

Katherin Harmon with Scientific American (Aug 2012) reports: "How do these invertebrates manage this quick-change feat? Small pigment-filled cells, called chromatophores, and reflective ones, called iridophores and leucophores, in the skin of most octopuses allow them to create nuances patterns of color and luminosity and even to harness polarized light to fool other ocean life."

The old paradigm views this as follows: an octopus uses its skin to camouflage.  

The NT paradigm takes a slightly different interpretive view of this: there is no octopus; an octopus is a multicellular organism, i.e. an alliance of cellular tribes; an octopus is home to neurons and the thinking skin that embryologically gave rise to neurons.  So, from the NT perspective an octopus is enveloped in thinking skin and is populated by a neural colony (the histological descendants of this thinking skin).  The end result is still the same: a marvel of nature, an amazing example of adaptation, a jewel of collective intelligence.  But the interpretive path - as you see - is somewhat different. Instead of giving credit to octopus-as-a-construct, the NT perspective says: this miracle of adaptive camouflage is the working of a couple of different cellular tribes that share an origin - chromotaphores, iridiophores, leucophores and neurons.  The alliance of these four cellular tribes (that possess surface intelligence of reflection and self-reflecting intelligence of interneuronal communication) is what accounts for this success of adaptation.  

Melanocytes: a Window into the Nervous System

Mind begins as skin... and it remains skin-like in its dichotomous distinctions of self and other, me and not-me.  Melanocytes are histological and historical cousins of neurons.  Thus, Neural Tribe is Skin Tribe.

"Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells that originate from the dorsal portions of the closing neural tube in vertebrate embryos. Similar to neurons, they are derived from pluripotent neural crest cells that differentiate into numerous cell lineages. The development of melanocytes and neurons, as well as their differentiated function, within the mature tissue, is influenced by signaling molecules produced by neighboring cells. The same signaling molecules that have a role in the central and peripheral nervous tissue also have a role in cutaneous melanocytes. These include Wnt, bone morphogenetic proteins, endothelins, steel factor, hepatocyte growth factor, fibroblast growth factors, and neurotrophins. Signaling pathways including PKC- and p53/p73-dependent pathways are also common to melanocytes and neurons. The similarity between melanocytes and neurons suggests that melanocytes could provide a valuable model for studies of diseases that affect the nervous system, as well as for development of potential therapies for these diseases."

Source: Hee-Young Park,  and Mina YaarJournal of Investigative Dermatology 132, 835-845 (March 2012)

Skin Surface is the Root of Our Neural Growth

Mind begins as skin. Namely, with melanocytes of the neural crest.  Take a look at these pictures of melanocytes.  Notice the dendritic extensions that foreshadow neuronal dendritic processes.  

Our dendritic depth began on the surface of our skin.

“Melanin, from which human skin derives most of its pigmentation, is a remarkable molecule that has had literally thousands of uses in the evolution of life. […] Melanin is distinguished by a range of extraordinary optical and chemical properties. In the body, it is able to absorb, scatter, and reflect light of different wavelengths. […] Melanocytes originate in a part of the embryo called the neural crest, which flanks the neural tube. They start out as actively as actively dividing cells known as melanoblasts, which migrate to the epidermis during the eighteenth week of embryonic development, finding their way to into the skin, ears, eyes, and brain covering. Melanocytes produce melanin pigment in small membrane-bound packets called melanosomes, which are then pushed out of the melanocytes and into the keratinocytes of the epidermis via spidery extensions known as dendrites.” (Nina Jablonski, Skin: a Natural History)



Surface Intelligence

"Living animals had their own form and their own substance. Not only was each individual animal a spatially bounded package, but in an important sense the contents of the package belonged together. [...] So boundaries - and the physical structures that constituted them, membranes, skins - were crucial.  First, they held the animal's substance in, and the rest of the world out.  Second, by virtue of being located at the animal's surface they formed a frontier: the frontier at which the outside world impacted on the animal, and across which exchanges of matter and energy and information could take place.  Light fell on the animal, objects bumped into it, pressure waves pressed against it, chemicals stuck to it... Some of these events were, generally speaking, "a good thing" for the animal, others were neutral, others were bad.  Any animal that had the means to sort out the good from the bad - approaching or letting in the good, avoiding or blocking the bad - would clearly have been at a biological advantage.  Natural selection was therefore likely to select for "sensitivity." [...] so the first types of sensitivity would have involved, for example, local retraction or swelling or engulfing by the skin." (N. Humphrey, History of the Mind).

As a Neural Tribe, we find our past in skin.  Superficiality (of information-processing) is our historical lot.  Our trigger-happy, knee-jerk, stereotyped and dualistic information-processing defaults are the original neural software that we run on.  Skin-think is Surface-think.


Touchy Tribe

"The skin cells of late embryo and early tadpole stage amphibians [...] produce all-or-none cardiac-type action potentials.  When one patch of cells is stimulated, a wave of excitation propagates over the surface of the animal.  In some unknown way, the skin is tied to the primitive nervous system." (Bullock et al, 1977, 349).

Once again: "in some unknown way, the skin is tied to the [...] nervous system."

The job of a neuron is to share survival-critical information with a fellow neuron.  We are a tribe of cooperative survival.  We begin as skin.  Skin is the first nervous system: it is the first apparatus of intelligence.  Skin has the intelligence of a gatekeeper: it is selective, it discriminates stimuli, it filters friend from foe.  But the intelligence of skin is also our conceptual demise (after all, to filter, to sort, to discriminate is to operate on bias and partiality; this skinthink software of our existence is the seat of our built-in duality).

The intelligence of skin is the original neural sapience (wisdom) of our tribe.  The more advanced neural colonies are merely smarter, more discriminating skin, skin that is more adept at information-gathering, information-processing and information-sharing.

Surrounded by Reality, we live on the surface, on the edgy boundary of Self and Other.  This superficiality is our complexity.  This primitive skinthink is also our highest accomplishment.  

So, we - the neural colonies - are not just inside.  We are also on the outside.  Wherever you find skin - there as a species - you are.  Skin is our histological ancestry.  

We - the Neural Tribe - are a Touchy Tribe.  Sensitive, reactive, responsive...

skin of being

skin of being

From Skin-think to Kin-think

Nicolas Humphrey in HIstory of the MInd: "The material substrate of the mind [is] nervous tissue [...] and it is to be remarked that even in animals like human beings the neural tube which forms the brain during embryological development derives from an infolding of the skin."

We - the Neural Tribe - are the anatomical offspring of the Skin Tribe.  

Skin is a mirror and the offspring of the Skin Tribe, we reflect Reality (and make our living exchanging information about it in return for metabolic support).  

Skin is a self-serving boundary and the offspring of the Skin Tribe, we - the Neural Tribe - defensively divide Reality into Self and Other (generating incessant streams of survival-oriented dichotomous distinctions in exchange for a metabolic dollar).

Neural Tribe has no more and no less sophistication that the skinthink that it runs on.  We think like skin because we are made of skin.  The challenge in front of us is to shift from Skin-think to Kin-think, from dualistic divisions to nondual unification.  Anatomically it's impossible.  We can't transcend the material substrate of what we are.  We can only transcend ourselves informationally, by re-thinking who/what we are: neural colonies of one and the same Neural Kin we are not the skin-think divisions of body-form that separate us. 


Neurality is Duality (i.e. Skinthink)

Context: Neural Tribe begins  (embryonically) as skin.  Neurons take their cellular root from epithelial cells.  Neural Tribe is the offspring of Epithelial Tribe/Skin Tribe.  More about this later.  For now, an excerpt from another writing project of mine that illustrates the inheritance of duality that comes with our skin-based origins.

Mind is Skin 

Made of skin, mind thinks like skin.  It is a fact of human embryonic development that CNS [Central Nervous System], the seat of human intelligence, begins as nothing more than involution (envagination) of ectoderm.  The ectoderm enfolds onto itself (through a process called neural tubing) and becomes centralized, externally, as a brain, and, internally, as a mind.

The first and foremost job of any skin is to separate the inner from the outer, the self from the other.  The skin divides and so do we. Made of skin, we mind dualistically and dichotomously.  Each mind, like a pair of scissors, divides the Oneness of the Universe in half (initially into “self’ and “other”[4]) and then in half again and again and again.  This Skinthink is inevitable.

The Original Duality

There are all kinds of dualities.  We can divide the world into “this” or “that,” “life” or “death,” “good” or “bad,” “black” or “white,” “Republicans” and “Democrats,” “Ego” and “Eco.”  You name it!  But the Original Duality – the original crack in the monolith of Oneness – is the Duality of Self and Other, that of Subject and Object.  There is no shedding of this Skinthink.

Duality is Subjectivity, Subjectivity is Duality

Objectively, all – inseparably – is one and one  - inseparably – is all.  Subjectively, however, we experience the world not as oneness but as a pluraility of stand-alone forms, as a multitude of separated selves.  Subjectivity is fundamentally dualistic as it presupposes a point-of-view, i.e. a perceiving self, and an “object” – out there – to perceive.

All Awareness is Dualistic

Awareness is directional: to be aware, one must be aware of something other than one’s self.  Awareness is necessarily a Subject-Object duality: to be aware of something the Subject must be first aware of one’s self as being separate from one’s Object of awareness. While this separation of all that is into Subject-Self and the Other-Objects is, of course, objectively Maya (illusion in Sanskrit), subjectively this separation is real.  Self-awareness is other-awareness.  Without this illusory duality of Self and Other, there can be no sense of self.  Thus, Skinthink is existentially inevitable.

Skinthink is the Mechanism of Differentiation

The Universe is alive but confused: it dreams the nightmare of separateness.  Each life-form – to be its own self – dreams its own dream of separateness.  This Skinthink is both the cause and the consequence of continuous differentiation of One into Many.

Skinthink is Samsara

Skinthink, the Self-Other Duality, is what drives the metamorphosis of the Universe.  The Universe dreams itself into endless zero-sum scenario.  This is the Samsara (“wheel of suffering”) of our divided existence.  Divided by our subjectivity, we compete against our own – shared – interest.  This happens at every level of existence – from the Brownian motion of molecules – to the fields of political football – to ethnic cleansing and international warfare.

Two Vectors of Skinthink

Subject-Object/Self-Other Skinthink is ego-building.  It is centripetally myopic and inevitably self-serving.  There are – as I see it – two ways for ego to grow: sociopathically or narcissistically.  Sociopathic growth is blatant conquest, ethically unrestrained zero-sum conduct, pure jungle.  Narcissistic growth is the expansion of the radius of identification.  Whereas a sociopathic ego simply takes what it needs or wants, a narcissistic ego recruits the resources with varying degree of developmental sophistication.  Narcissism ranges from primitive (individualistic, relational) to political (ethnic, cultural, social) to sublimated (Bodhisattva). A bacterium that engulfs another bacterium acts sociopathically.  A bacterium that forms a symbiosis with another bacterium is sublimating its self-serving into organism-building. But whether we take the sociopathic short-cut or the so-called “high road” of cooperation, there is no way around the fundamental Skinthink of our motives.  As long as there is a self, the self is self-serving.  This is neither good, nor bad.  It just is.

Culture is Skinthink 

Continued differentiation and acquisition of power lead to the establishment of rules of engagement and arms of enforcement.  Clothing (our second skin) leads to housing (third skin) which in its turn leads to emergence of nuclear families (fourth skin) which leads to social identification and culture-formation (fifth skin) which is further codified into intra-cultural rules of conduct and morality.  Cultures – dreamed by minds that are made of skin – are divisive and, thus, combative.  As the size of the evolutionary opponents grows, so does the size and magnitude of their armamentarium.  Whereas two nuclear families can carry out a centuries-old vendetta with nothing but kitchen knives, any two (or more) geopolitical powers need nuclear arms.  In sum, inter-personal, let alone, inter-national frictions come at progressively greater costs.

Skinthink is expensive.

Strike that: skinthink is unaffordable.  And yet it is inevitable.

That’s the paradox of our existence.

Reference: History of the Next Big Bang: Theory of Nothinglessness (Somov, 2012)