Scientists have grown the first mini human brains in a laboratory and say their success could lead to new levels of understanding about the way brains develop and what goes wrong in disorders like schizophrenia and autism.
Researchers based in Austria started with human stem cells and created a culture in the lab that allowed them to grow into so-called “cerebral organoids” — or mini brains — that consisted of several distinct brain regions.
It is the first time that scientists have managed to replicate the development of brain tissue in three dimensions.
To create their brain tissue, Juergen Knoblich and Madeline Lancaster at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology and fellow researchers at Britain’s Edinburgh University Human Genetics Unit grew human stem cells with a special combination of nutrients designed to capitalise on the cells’ innate ability to organise into complex organ structures.
In an early sign of how such mini brains may be useful for studying disease in the future, Knoblich’s team were able to use the organoids to model the development of microcephaly, a rare neurological condition in which patients develop an abnormally small head, and identify what causes it.
But the research team said the work was a very long way from growing a fully-functioning human brain in a laboratory.
Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at Britain’s John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, described the work as “fascinating and exciting”. He said it extended the possibility of stem cell technologies for understanding brain development and disease mechanisms - and for discovering new drugs.
“This study offers the promise of a major new tool for understanding the causes of major developmental disorders of the brain ... as well as testing possible treatments,” said Paul Matthews, a professor of clinical neuroscience at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the research but was impressed with its results.