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Scientists Measure Brain Development in a Lab-Grown Mini Brain

Posted on Sep 27, 2013 by Ruth Loftus  | Tags: brain development, lab, mini brain, Austria, Vienna, Microcephaly, stem, cells, organoids, research, Dr Knoblich

The neurological world is celebrating huge advances in brain development following laboratory research at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Vienna, Austria which has successfully grown a miniature human brain. The research, led by biologist Jürgen Knoblich, was published in the journal, Nature, at the end of last month and has been celebrated for paving the way for understanding brain diseases.

Using a microscope, scientists were able to identify regular features of the brain such as the cortex, the hippocampus, and the retina which indicates  we can even see an eye growing. In particular, scientists were particularly impressed to see some similarities between the mini brain and the way the brain is organised into separate regions.  

The mini brains, which have been grown inside a centrifuge and supplied with oxygen and nutrients, have been ‘alive’ and growing for a whole year. The current size it just 4 milimetres - approximately the size of a pea. Despite not resembling the size or shape of a normal brain, the lab brain does represent quite a significant similarity to the human brain when compared with other in vitro methods that have been attempted in the past. Previous attempts to investigate brain conditions, such as bipolar disorder have have had to rely on brain tissue from deceased donors - and this has always involved an element of inaccuracy.

This research also represents substantial methodological developments  instead of using animal cells from mice or other lab animals, but results were limiting because researchers could not get close enough to match the complexity of the human brain. Now, the current model in Vienna uses human cells, so it is much more useful in the study of brain disorders as it can simulate specifically human diseases which animal cells cannot.

In fact, the skin and blood cells used were taken from patients with a brain disorder known as Microcephaly which is characterized by an abnormally small brain, and often causes serious developmental problems. Using tissues from those affected by the disorder, the researchers were able to observe how the brain develops differently. Despite the tiny size of the ‘lab brain’, it was possible to identify the reason for the limited brain size of patients suffering from Microcephaly: a flaw caused cells to specialise earlier than normal preventing them from ‘bulking up’ up to a significant number before transforming into neurons. As a result, the final size of the brain (even the pea-sized "mini-brains"), is much smaller than a normal human brain.

Following on from this research into Microcephaly, the next stage would be to recreate specific types of mini brains in order to mimic what happens during early brain behaviour to cause a variety of brain disorders. The hope is that this would then create opportunities to test new drugs to measure their effect on the brain and to ensure that they don’t cause brain defects or other disorders. In particular, researchers hope that the ‘lab brains’ will become the basis for ongoing neurological studies into diseases such as autism and schizophrenia, which are currently understood to develop in the brain in the very early stages of foetal development.

Numerous neurologists not directly connected to the research have declared it ‘mind boggling’ or ‘a breakthrough’, and while the mini brains or “organoids” have gained significant press coverage, the team at the Austrian Academy of Sciences have stressed that this is really only the simple beginnings of what will eventually lead to real progress in understanding brain development.

The scientists have also had to defend their work against claims that the miniature brains are just another example of the widespread stem cell research dedicated towards growing new organs to develop organ transplant opportunities. While some medical professionals have been known to theorize about the potential for brain transplant procedures in the future, Dr Knoblich has stressed that this was is no way an objective for the IMBA teams’ research.

Likewise, Knoblich has been forced to defend the ethical dimension of his research against suspicions that it might go someway towards the development of ‘bigger brains’. In his defence, a UK based consultant neurologist, Dr Zameel Cader, has labelled the research as ‘primitive’ and highlighted the fact that while the mini lab brains are able to mimic some of the behaviours of a tiny brain, they are by no means developed enough to communicate effectively between parts, and certainly not to ‘think’. The Vienna researchers re-emphasised once again that this research was not intended to study the knowledge or personality regions of the brain, but exclusively our understanding of human brain disorders.


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