Doctors could grow tiny versions of human brains

Scientists from Stanford University figure out a way to make "human cortical spheroids," little balls of brain cells that could offer insights into the complexities of our actual gray matter.

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2 min read

OK, so we're not able to grow regular-size brains that we can put in jars and keep in case of an emergency, but some scientists may have figured out a way to make smaller versions that can be used for testing. Warner Bros.

There are so many things we don't know about the human brain, which is ironic since coming up with new discoveries about it actually requires us to use our gray matter. Wait, is that even irony? All this makes our heads hurt.

However, we may have gotten another step closer to understanding just how this mysterious organ works now that researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine have come up with a way to concoct little human brains in the lab.

Budding brain-like "human cortical spheroids" growing in a petri dish. Stanford University School of Medicine

Well, they're not little human brains, exactly, but balls of human brain cells that grow and function like the outer mantle, or cerebral cortex, of the person from whom they were derived. The cortex handles sensory input and high-level functions such as speaking, memory and vision.

These little laminated cerebral cortex-like structures, or "organoids," could lead to insights into brain development and function, and, it is hoped, eventually into the causes of psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

"One of the major problems in understanding mental disorders is that we can't directly access the human brain," researcher Dr. Sergiu Pasca, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said in a release. "These spheroids closely resemble the three-dimensional architecture of the cortex and have gene expression patterns that mimic those in a developing fetal brain."

The cerebral-cortex-like spheres also lend themselves to analysis using conventional brain slice methods.

"So, in a sci-fi future, it might potentially reveal what circuits went awry in the developing cortex of a particular individual with a brain disorder," explains the National Institutes of Health, which funded much of the research. Details of the findings were published last Monday in the journal Nature Methods.

Scientists have already replicated brains by extracting neurons from stem cells derived from human skin. Those samples have been helpful in areas such as testing drugs, but don't necessarily tell scientists how the brain's neural network communicates. The new model out of Stanford has resulted in a more functional, naturalistic sample of the brain, the researchers say, and the process of creating the human cortical spheroids also requires fewer steps than previous methods of making lab brains.

If all this sounds a little too scary-science for you, don't worry. The little brain samples can't yet plot email scams or dream up bad movie scripts -- quite yet at least.

"They do not even begin to approach the complexity of a whole human brain," said Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health. "But that is not exactly what we need to study disorders of brain circuitry."

Art and science of the human brain (images)

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(Via Popular Science)