If I only had a brain: scientists grow human mini-brain-like structures from pluripotent stem cells

Cerebral organoidsIn a first for the field, scientists have used human pluripotent stem cells to grow miniature brain-like structures in a dish in a lab (see beautiful image of one of these “mini-brains” at left from the paper).

This exciting, pioneering feat, accomplished by a team from the Austrian Academy of Science in Vienna led by Dr. Juergen Knoblich (see his lab page here), has drawn great attention in the mainstream media such as here at CNN.

The paper, which Lancaster, et al., was published in Nature and is entitled:

Cerebral organoids model human brain development and microcephaly

Below is a picture of the Knoblich lab. I like to show the people who did the science and not just the sciency images. I’m not sure which is Dr. Madeline Lancaster, who deserves congratulations for her outstanding first author paper.Knoblich lab

I believe that this paper is a major advance as it opens the door both to a better understanding of human fetal brain development and a new way to model disease states when brain development goes awry.

The team used this new technology to study one such case, a condition called microcephaly, where the human brain does not grow normally, leaving adults with brains that are most often too small to function normally. Interestingly, as a side note, some patients with microcephaly have entirely normal cognitive and behavioral function, a phenomenon that scientists do not entirely understand.

The cerebral organoids contained normal markers of many human brain cell types and the neurons produced exhibited evidence of electrical function.

It is important to stress that the team did not make actual human brains, miniature or otherwise. The cerebral organoids–about the size of a pea and grown from hESC or hIPSCs–only contained some brain regions and these were primitive in nature resembling fetal brain structures. Most notably, these brain-like structures lacked a cerebellum and almost entirely lacked a hippocampus.

Still, nothing is perfect and to me this seems like an impressive start to what is certainly going to be an important new line of stem cell research. It remains perhaps unlikely that this technology in the future will provide material for actual transplant of newly grown brain regions in human patients, but I wouldn’t rule anything out in the coming decades when it comes to applications of stem cell technology.