'Mini-Brains' Created in the Lab May be the Future for Studying Human Diseases

First Posted: Feb 16, 2016 10:45 AM EST

Scientists have created "mini-brains" in the lab in order to study neurological diseases. The tiny brains are made up of many of the neurons and cells of the human brain, and even have some of the same functionality.

"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," said Thomas Hartung, one of the researchers, 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."

The researchers created the brains using what are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell-like state. Then, these cells are stimulated to grow into brain cells.

In this case, the cells were taken from the skin of several healthy adults. However, mini-brains could also be created with cells from people with certain genetic traits or diseases to help study various types of pharmaceuticals.

The brains themselves are only about 350 micrometers in diameter, which is about the size of the eye of a housefly. After cultivating the mini-brains for about two months, the brain develops four types of neurons and two types of support cells: astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. The oligodendrocytes then go on to create myelin, which insulates the neuron's axons and allows them to communicate faster.

The findings could be huge for testing new drugs and for researching certain types of diseases that impact the brain.

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