News / Science & Technology

Scientists Create Brain-like Blobs in Test Tubes

A magnified image of a cerebral organoid showing cerebral tissue adjacent to developing retinal tissue (brown pigmented region). (Credit: Madeline A. Lancaster)
A magnified image of a cerebral organoid showing cerebral tissue adjacent to developing retinal tissue (brown pigmented region). (Credit: Madeline A. Lancaster)
They’re the closest thing to human brains that scientists have grown in the lab.

Researchers in Austria and the United Kingdom have nurtured human cells into pea-sized clusters of tissues with striking similarities to embryonic brains.

They provide an unprecedented opportunity to study how disorders such as schizophrenia and autism develop.

The researchers began with stem cells, which can become any type of tissue in the body.

With a little chemical coaxing and a protein scaffold to grow on, they followed the same developmental steps that human brains do. They formed distinct regions resembling those found at about nine weeks after conception. Some even had the beginnings of a retina.

Not quite brains

“All of these steps we have in our cultures, to a level of precision that is totally unexpected," said Juergen Knoblich at the Austrian Academy of Science, who directed the research.

Comparison of the organoid (right) to the developing brain (left, section of a mouse brain shown). Both show neural stem cells in red and neurons in green. (Credit: Marko Repic and Madeline A. Lancaster)Comparison of the organoid (right) to the developing brain (left, section of a mouse brain shown). Both show neural stem cells in red and neurons in green. (Credit: Marko Repic and Madeline A. Lancaster)

"But if you zoom out and look at the whole, the whole is just not a brain,” he said.

Instead, writing in Nature, he and his colleagues call them “cerebral organoids” - not quite brains, but similar.

Scrambled cerebrum

Knoblich says these brain-like blobs can’t replace what’s between your ears.

For one thing, although many of the parts are there, they’re not in the right places. He says it’s like a car gone wrong.

“You have an engine, you have the wheels. But the engine would be on the roof and the gearbox would be attached to that. But you can still take that car and analyze how an engine works,” Knoblich said.

A cross-section of an entire organoid showing development of different brain regions. All cells are in blue, neural stem cells in red, and neurons in green. (Credit: Madeline A. Lancaster)A cross-section of an entire organoid showing development of different brain regions. All cells are in blue, neural stem cells in red, and neurons in green. (Credit: Madeline A. Lancaster)

What these cerebral organoids excel at, he says, is offering a picture of how the brain develops, and how that development can go wrong.

Dysfunctional development

One example is a condition called microcephaly. Patients with the disorder develop very small brains and are severely mentally disabled.

Knoblich’s colleagues took skin cells from a microcephaly patient and reprogrammed them into stem cells.

Lead author Madeline Lancaster grew them in the lab, and immediately noticed that "the overall size of the patient-dervied organoids was much smaller.”

When Lancaster examined how the cells inside the organoids were developing, she found they were different from normal brains in an important way.

This early in life, stem cells are usually multiplying and making more stem cells. But in the microcephaly patients, Lancaster found the stem cells had already started differentiating into the cells that carry signals in the brain, called neurons.

“The stem cells were not expanding like they should and they were making neurons too early," she said. "And we think that this depletion of these stem cells leads to the overall size decrease because in the end, less neurons can be made.”

Other uses

These test tube brains could also be put to use studying more common disorders like schizophrenia and autism.

Although those conditions don’t typically show up until later in life, "it has been shown that the underlying defects already occurred during the development of the brain," Knoblich said. "And we are confident and hope that we might be able to model some of these defects in our organoids as well.”

Knoblich is not sure scientists will ever be able to recreate the complexity of the human brain in a test tube.  
  
“Besides the fact that I think we would run into very severe ethical problems," he said. "I do not think this will be possible.”
 
So keep your head on your shoulders. Scientists aren’t likely to replace it anytime soon.

You May Like

Multimedia Obama, Modi Break Nuclear Deal Deadlock

Impasse over liability issues had been stalling bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation; deal reached at start of US president's three-day visit to India More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid