Neurology: 'Mini-Brains' Developed To Study Neurological Illnesses

First Posted: Feb 13, 2016 06:54 PM EST

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have developed "mini-brains" to study neurological diseases. The brains are composed of neurons and cells of a human brain.

"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," study leader Thomas Hartung, MD, PhD, the Doerenkamp-Zbinden Professor and Chair for Evidence-based Toxicology at the Bloomberg School, said in a news release. "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.

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

Researchers created the brains by using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPCs) that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic cell-like state and are then stimulated to grow into brain cells, researchers say. At only about 350 micrometeres in diameter, or just about the size of the eye of a housefly--hundreds of thousands of exact copies can be produced in each batch.

After just two months, the brains developed four types of neurons and two types of support cells: astrocytes and oligodendrocytes, the latter of which go on to create myelin, which insulates the neuron's axons and allows them to communicate faster, researchers say. 

During the study, researchers watched the myelin develop and begin to sheath the axons. They were also able to record spontaneous electrophysiological activity by using electrodes. Then, researchers listened to any spontaneous electrical communication of the neurons as they tested drugs on the brains. 

"We don't have the first brain model nor are we claiming to have the best one," said Hartung. "But this is the most standardized one. And when testing drugs, it is imperative that the cells being studied are as similar as possible to ensure the most comparable and accurate results."

Right now, Hartung is applying for a patent for the mini-brains and is also developing a commercial entity known as ORGANOME to produce them, which he hopes to begin in 2015, according to Neuroscience News.

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