Scientists Grow Mini Human Brains

Brains grown in lab from use of stem cells.

Scientists based in Austria have grown human brains in a laboratory setting for the first time, and say that their success can provide insight into disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. These brains can also lead to understanding how the brain develops, including the causes of brain disorders.

With the use of human stem cells, researchers created a culture in the lab, which grew into the mini-brains, known as cerebral organoids. These organoids consisted of many distinct brain regions, and marked the first occasion in which scientists replicated brain tissue in three dimensions.

The organoids were used to produce a biological model of the development of a rare brain disorder called microcephaly. Microcephaly is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which head circumference is more than two standard deviations below the average for age and gender. Scientists suggest that the same technique of creating a biological model can be used for other developmental disorders such as schizophrenia or autism – disorders that affect millions of people worldwide. These biological models could make testing possible treatments easier.

The brain is the body’s most complex organ. At the beginning of development, the brain starts out as simple tissue, and quickly grows more multifaceted – a process relatively unknown to scientists.  By not having a clear understanding of brain development, researchers are unable to know what exactly goes wrong when brain disorders develop. This then leads to a lack of understanding in how to treat these disorders.

Juergen Knoblich and Madeline Lancaster at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology created the brain tissue, with help from researchers at the Human Genetics Lab at Edinburgh University. The process began with human stem cells, utilizing a combination of nutrients that bring out the cells innate ability to organize into complex organ structures.

The tissue that grew was called neuroectoderm – a tissue that develops all components of the brain and nervous system in embryos. The neuroectoderm was placed in a machine called a bioreactor, which is used to circulate oxygen and nutrients, thus facilitating the growth into cerebral organoids.

Researchers found developing brain structures such as the choroid plexus, the retina, and the cerebral cortex in the organoids.

The maximum size of the organoids was approximately four millimetres. The organoids were far from resembling a fully developed brain, but the structures had different types of neural tissues and were firing neurons.

The researchers had made it clear that their goal was not to replicate a fully developed brain, but rather analyze the development of human brain tissue.

Although we are far from growing a full-sized brain in a petri dish, the implications of this study include modelling various neurological illnesses, and from there, potentially learning how to prevent them. We are now closer to gaining a fuller understanding of how the brain, the most complex natural organ, works.

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