For the first time, scientists have grown miniature human brains in a lab — pea-sized models that could hold the key to understanding developmental disorders like autism.
The scientists took skin cells, turned them into stem cells, then grew them into tiny versions of human brains, complete with some basic brain organization and structure. (Via New Scientist)
They call them “organoids,” lab-grown clumps of cells that are almost organs, but not quite. And these neural organoids are the closest thing to a functioning human brain ever grown in the lab. (Via Nature)
The researchers say these mini brains are roughly equivalent to the brain of a 9-week-old fetus.
One of them even developed retinal tissue, which in a normal brain would go on to form part of the eye. (Via LiveScience)
But the researchers aren’t just trying to build a brain in a jar. The mini brains don’t think or feel or have anything like a neural network. That’s because the goal, according to one researcher, is to understand the brain, not rebuild it.
“What’s important here is that we’re trying to understand how the cells behave during development — not that we’re trying to recreate organs or large fragments of tissue.” (Via BBC)
In fact, they’ve already helped scientists understand at least one disorder.
Microcephaly is a condition when the brain and head are smaller than normal. A writer for The Scientist explains how the researchers studied the disorder in one Scottish patient. (Via Wikipedia)
“They took skin cells from the patient, reprogrammed them into a stem-like state, and used them to grow organoids that ended up much smaller than usual. By dissecting the organoids, the team discovered the reason for this stunted size.” (Via The Scientist)
Basically, an important step in brain development came too early, brought on by a mutation in a particular gene. Scientists can now use the same techniques to study the effects of other mutations.
And eventually, if the teams can grow somewhat larger brains, they may be able to study the causes of the more common disorders schizophrenia and autism. (Via MIT Technology Review)
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