Scientists have grown the first mini human brains in a laboratory and say their success could lead to greater understanding about the way brains develop and what goes wrong in disorders such as 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” 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.
Using the organoids, the scientists were then able to produce a biological model of how a rare brain condition called microcephaly develops — suggesting the same technique could in the future be used to model disorders such as autism or schizophrenia that affect millions of people around the world.
“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 said he was impressed with its results.
Members of researcher Juergen Knoblich’s team were able to use their organoids to model the development of microcephaly, a rare neurological condition in which patients develop an abnormally small head, and identify what causes it.
Both the research team and other experts acknowledged, however, that the work was a very long way from growing a fully-functioning human brain in a laboratory.
“Saying you can replicate the workings of the brain with some tissue in a dish in the lab is like inventing the first abacus and saying you can use it to run the latest version of Microsoft Windows — there is a connection there, but we’re a long way from that sort of application yet,” said Dean Burnett, lecturer in psychiatry at Cardiff University.