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Researchers create ‘mini-brains,’ a new tool to treat brain disorders

Posted on 04-21-16 in Medicine, Research

Researchers create ‘mini-brains,’ a new tool to treat brain disorders

It may sound like science fiction, but recent news from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is anything but. Researchers claim to have developed three-dimensional “mini-brains,” or clumps of human neurons that are no larger than a fruit fly’s eye. These cells can even imitate some of the brain’s functionality.

The study was led by Thomas Hartung, M.D., Ph.D., the Doerenkamp-Zbinden professor and chair for evidence-based toxicology at the Bloomberg School. The results of this research were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12-13.

How did they do it?

To create these brains, Hartung and his colleagues used induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. The cells were derived from the skin of several healthy adults and then genetically reprogrammed to take on an embryonic stem cell-like state. The researchers then used specific chemicals to coax the cells to develop into brain cells.

After tending to these artificial brain cells for two months, the mini-brains developed four types of neurons and two types of support cells: astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. The oligodendrocytes went on to create myelin, an insulating sheath that surrounds part of the neuron and facilitates interneuron communication.

Once the mini-brains were complete, the cells inside of it demonstrated spontaneous electrophysiological activity, letting the researchers know that the neurons were successfully communicating with each other. The researchers even found that this spontaneous activity changed whenever they added test drugs to the mini-brain.

Why did they do it?

If these mini-brains can be successfully replicated in many different labs — which the researchers suspect will be possible — the entire face of the pharmaceutical industry could change.

“Ninety-five percent of drugs that look promising when tested in animal models fail once they are tested in humans at great expense of time and money,” explained Hartung. “While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats. And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can often get much better information from these balls of cells than from rodents.”

Although these first mini-brains were created by collecting skin cells of healthy adults, the researchers believe they could also form mini-brains from people with certain genetic traits or certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis. It may then be possible to use these mini-brains to study how well certain drugs can treat the disease.

“We believe that the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals, more reliance on human, cell-based models,” adds Hartung.

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About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at