PHILADELPHIA — Xuyu Qian yanked open an incubator door at the University of Pennsylvania to reveal rows of cylindrical tubes swirling, like shaken-up snow globes, with a strange and exotic flurry. The pale, peppercorn-sized spheres were lab-grown globules of human brain tissue, or, as Qian occasionally refers to them, “minibrains.”

“Minibrain” is a controversial nickname, loathed by some scientists who fear it conjures alarmist images of fully functioning brains trapped in vats, while the reality today is balls of cells that can’t think or feel.

But the term vividly evokes the aspirational goal of this fast-moving area of research: to mimic the complexity of the human brain and illuminate the biology of the human mind, one of science’s darkest black boxes. As the technology, which scientists refer to in journal articles as “cerebral organoids,” improves, the more the “minibrain” title fits.

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