Scientists Grow Miniature, but Distinctly Human, Brain in the Lab

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Austrian researchers have used regenerative techniques to grow a miniature human brain in the lab, they reported recently in the journal Nature.

The researchers started with pluripotent human stem cells, or stem cells that are capable of developing into various kinds of specialized cell. After letting them develop, they removed proto-neural cells and placed them on a scaffold. Using a bioreactor to improve cellular growing conditions, they obtained a brain-like organ that exhibited differentiated brain regions.

retinaThe mini-brains developed into distinct regions, including a cerebral cortex, retina (pictured), meninges and choroid plexus. But they stopped growing after two months. The Austrian researchers, led by Jurgen Knoblich of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, said that in the absence of a circulation system, the core of the mini-brains probably didn’t receive adequate nutrients or oxygen to continue growing.

So what would you want with a tiny lab-grown brain? Growing organs from stem cells is a hot field of research right now, with everything from teeth to hearts being grown in the lab. Most of those efforts aim eventually to use the organs as custom-made transplant organs. Such a system would solve the serious shortage of some organs and reduce the chances of patients rejecting transplanted organs.

A brain transplant has, of course, never been performed — although an Italian researcher recently argued that such an operation would be possible, if bizarre. (The recipient of a transplanted brain would also receive the donor's knowledge and personality.)

Instead, the Austrian researchers think that lab-grown mini-brains could help advance research into the brain and its disorders.

bioreactor-edMedical researchers urgently need better models for developmental brain diseases, because the animal models commonly used lack the structural complexity that characterizes human brains and therefore often do not adequately simulate human disease.

The IMBA team demonstrated that the mini-brains could offer such a model. They first produced induced pluripotent stem cells from the skin tissue of a patient with microcephaly. By developing a mini brain from these cells, the scientists were able to grow a mini brain that had the same problem. Microcephaly is characterized by an abnormally small brain, which causes potentially serious developmental problems.

Observing the microcephalic mini-brain led the researchers to hypothesize that the disorder occurs when neural differentiation happens too soon during brain development, stymieing stem and progenitor cells which would otherwise spur additional brain growth.

The hope is that mini-brains can be produced to model other brain disorders as well. They could also provide a means of testing new drugs to ensure that they don't cause brain defects or other disorders.

Photos courtesy IMBA

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • TheDude September 1, 2013 on 7:39 pm

    Ok, since the brain is the human, then at what point of development are fully sentient brains reached? Then, when does it become a human rights violation to hold a living sentient brain in a laboratory? Imagine a an active sentient brain cut-off from the world, a mind stuck in an endless darkness-how would such a life be?

  • Philippe Panzini September 1, 2013 on 7:50 pm

    The recipient of a brain transplant isn’t who we think it is… it really is a body transplant. The recipient is the brain.

    • nkaragas Philippe Panzini September 8, 2013 on 9:54 am

      Whoops, I just basically restated what you already pointed out…but yeah, I totally agree with you.

    • fieryglimmer Philippe Panzini November 5, 2013 on 9:19 pm

      I doubt that we know if there is a “person” with only the brain sans body. Hence the difficulty in determining when to “pull the plug”, aside from the emotional issues. Philosophical difficulties exist. The body developed the brain first. While we might even be able to make a cartoon or some effort to duplicate what we think makes a learning, remembering, and physically adaptive (our brain is in a constant state of physical change) organ capable of “experiences”……OH MY!

  • gerhard September 3, 2013 on 6:59 am

    I am all for stem cell research, growing organs and body parts, etc. However this is going too far. I agree with TheDude’s assessment below. They may well be creating a tormented “human” being.

    • Lowibu gerhard September 3, 2013 on 12:56 pm

      @gerhard These mini-brains are about as human as a brain tumor. They’re just more informative, human cell models for disease than mouse brains would are, and you can’t easily manipulate fully-developed human brains for experiments. Consciousness won’t sprout from a disembodied mass of tissue that gets no sensory input regardless.

      • Matthue DeYarus Lowibu September 11, 2013 on 5:03 pm

        Wow…you know the origins of consciousness and can determine which bio-infrastructure is responsible in every situation. This is revolutionary — you MUST publish!

  • nkaragas September 8, 2013 on 9:53 am

    “The recipient of a transplanted brain would also receive the donor’s knowledge and personality.”

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the recipient is actually the person inside the brain that is being transplanted and not the presumably brainless body? It is more like the brain is receiving a donor body, not the other way around. Just a thought. Anyways, thanks for the article.

  • neelam October 1, 2013 on 8:13 am

    in the article it says pluripotent stem cells were used to develop proto neural cell. But aren’t pluripotent human stem cells the same a embryonic stem cell. so wouldn’t the initial “making of the tiny brain” be unethical. Hence why weren’t induced pluripotent stem cells used instead.