Growing mini human brains in a lab

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but the brain is the most complex organ in our bodies. It basically controls everything you do, like eating, sleeping, kicking, talking, and thinking! It’s kind of like nature’s version of a supercomputer, but even more powerful.

Up until recently, scientists hadn’t even been able to imitate the brain using a computer, let alone grow one! In fact, researchers have tried to grow an entire 3D model of a developing brain, but none had prevailed. That is, until scientists from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA) grew human 3D brain tissues from stem cells!

Stem cells can divide an unlimited amount of times and have the potential to change into any other cell in the body, like skin cells, blood cells, or stomach cells. If researchers want to make stem cells grow into a particular type of cell, they need to create a very specific living environment to signal growth called a “niche.”

The researchers used a spinning bioreactor system to nourish the mini brains!

In this case, the researchers had to create a niche that would turn the stem cells into developing brain cells, but they had to tweak it carefully, in case the niche morphed them into mature cells. If the cells were mature, they wouldn’t organize themselves as they do when our bodies are developing in our mommy’s belly.

Well, it was tricky, but the researchers finally identified and then created the perfect habitat! When they placed the cells inside a petri dish with the proper preparation, the cells organized themselves into miniature developing brains! Even though the organs are tiny – 4 millimeters from front to back – they have independently working segments, just like the ones in our head.

Having tiny brains around the lab seems kind of creepy and science-fiction-ish. Are they pondering life, or just wishing they had a body? Maybe the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz could give them a home! Just picturing these brains lounging around sounds like some kind of “mad scientist” laboratory filled with jars of human minds. Maybe, they’re growing a bunch of brains to feed to zombies! Okay, enough silliness. They’re actually just being used to study different brain disorders.

According to Madeline Lancaster, a member of the study, the brains “allow for the testing of therapies against brain defects and other neuronal disorders [and]… will enable the analysis of the effects that specific chemicals have on brain development.” The researchers plan to use the brains and others like it to study different brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

My favorite part of this whole story? The scientists predict these brains can last forever, given the proper nourishment! As of now they are 10 months old and thriving!

Images courtesy of Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.