Scientists have grown miniature human brains in test tubes, creating a “tool” that will allow them to watch how the organs develop in the womb and, they hope, increase their understanding of neurological and mental problems.
Just a few millimetres across, the “cerebral organoids” are built up of layers of brain cells with defined regions that resemble those seen in immature, embryonic brains.
The scientists say the organoids will be useful for biologists who want to analyse how conditions such as schizophrenia or autism occur in the brain. Though these are usually diagnosed in older people some of the underlying defects occur during the brain’s early development.
The organoids are also expected to be useful in the development and testing of drugs. At present this is done using laboratory animals or isolated human cells; the new organoids could allow pharmacologists to test drugs in more human-like settings.
Stem cell scientists at Edinburgh and the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna grew this organoid, or tiny ‘brain’, which measures just 4mm across. Photograph: Madeline A Lancaster/PA