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Will observing how artificial brain tissue develops help to better understand disorders?
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Pea-sized brain tissue that grew was similar to that of a 9-week-old fetus.
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Madeline Lancaster / Institute of Molecular Biotechnology / Austrian Academy of Science, Vienna
Homemade Brains
Scientists grow human brain tissue in a dish

By Sara Goudarzi

Scientists in Austria have put on their thinking caps for a brainy experiment. Using special new medical techniques, the researchers managed to grow human brain tissue in a laboratory.

Why try to grow artificial, or human made, brains? The scientists hope that by understanding how the brain develops, they may be able to gain insight into brain disorders (diseases or conditions that are not normal).

HOW TO GROW A BRAIN

Living things are made up of millions of cells. There are approximately 200 different types of cells in the body, and all of them perform special functions that keep an organism alive and well. A large number of the same types of cells—like muscle cells or brain cells—that work together are called tissues. When a group of tissues does a specific job, it is considered an organ. The brain is a complex organ that controls how the body functions.

To make the brain tissue, researchers used stem cells. These unique cells are able to turn into any one of the different cell types in the body. The team of scientists treated the stem cells and observed as the stem cells began to multiply and develop into neurons, or brain cells. The neurons kept on multiplying and shaped themselves into clumps of cells, or tissue. The tissue then specialized even more, growing into brain structures that would be present in a full-size brain. Researchers called the result a brain organoid, a tiny artificial organ.

These pea-size brain tissues then developed to become similar to the brain tissue of a 9-week-old fetus (unborn organism). The neurons didn’t grow much more than that, mainly because they didn’t have a blood supply. Without this, they didn’t receive the nutrients and oxygen they needed to make more cells and grow even larger. Scientists believe that brain development in embryos is also at least partly controlled by signals from other parts of the body. Without these signals, full growth might be impossible.

A MIND FOR MEDICINE

Although the ability to grow brain tissue is an important step forward, researchers still have a very long way to go before being able to grow fully formed artificial brains.

All the same, the organoids may help shed light on some brain diseases. Scientists will be able to observe how parts of a human brain develop. They’ll also be able to see what can go awry, or wrong, as the brain grows.

“What our organoids are good for is to model development of the brain and to study anything that causes a defect [imperfection] in development,” said Juergen Knoblich, one of the researchers.