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

Photogallery Early Nigeria Results Show Buhari Leading; Tampering Concerns Mount

One local group monitoring polls is concerned politicians might use security agencies to 'fiddle with the election collation process' at state level More

UN: 7,300 Civilians Killed in Boko Haram Insurgency

A senior UN humanitarian official tells the United Nations Security Council 1,000 people have been killed this year More

Turkish President Warns Iran About Trying to Dominate Middle East

Warning comes amid growing concerns inside Turkey that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor 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.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

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