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After years of using mice to study the inner workings of the brain, Juergen Knoblich of the Institute of Molecular Biology in Vienna, Austria decided he’d had enough. Mouse models just weren’t close enough to human brain tissue to give him the detailed information he needed for his research and he certainly wasn’t going to experiment on the brains of a human subject. So instead, he grew his own mini human brain models from stem cells. Check out the video footage of the mini-brains in action after the jump.
The tiny brains include parts of the cortex, hippocampus, and retinas, allowing researchers to study the early stages of human brain development in a lab setting. The stem cells used to create the models come from adult donors, reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells. (This isn’t the first time human stem cells have been used to replace lab mice, by the way — the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is using similar techniques.) In less than a month, the stem cells grew into 3-4 millimeter “organoids” that included structures for many important parts of the brain, but lacked areas of the brain that control higher functions like language and reasoning.
If this sounds a little ethically dubious, don’t worry: the scientists behind the experiment say the organoids are not conscious and will never be able to reproduce the complex activities required for higher brain function. For one thing, they don’t have any of the blood vessels required to grow any larger. However, even with their limited abilities, the brain tissue has already revealed some interesting insights into what can go wrong with the brain during early fetal development. The team’s findings have been published in the journal Nature.
Second image © NIAID