Scientists from Austria have grown miniature human brains in the laboratory for the first time. They say that their success could lead to new levels of understanding about how the brain develops and could also replace animals in drug research.
The group from the Institute of Molecular Biology in Austria created the ‘mini brains’ from human skin cells. They first converted the skin cells into stem cells in the lab and then gave them a mixture of nutrients to encourage them to turn into brain cells. The cells were then suspended inside tiny droplets of gel scaffold to help them develop into 3D structures. In less than one month, they grew into tiny brain-like “organoids” containing structures closely resembling most of the regions of the brain. These ‘mini-brains’, which are about the size of a pea, can survive for almost a year and are thought to be equivalent in development to the brain of a nine-week-old human foetus.
This fascinating technique has already been used to model a condition called microcephaly (when the brain does not develop properly and is smaller than normal) and researchers hope that it will also prove useful in studies of more common conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.
Human brains are very different to those of most animals and research into how animal brains develop only provides a crude understanding of the process in humans. Dr. Juergen Knoblich, one of the researchers involved in the study, said: “These organ-culture models offer the possibility of testing drugs directly without animal experiments to get more informed results.”