Researchers Grow Small Human Brains from Stem Cells
August 29, 2013 1:44 PM
The team hopes this can one day be used to treat or even cure developmental issues in the brain, which lead to diseases
Researchers have created mini replicas of human brains for the purpose of studying development and causes of diseases, and while the brains aren't fully functional, they've provided some interesting insight.
Researchers from the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Vienna, Austria -- led by Juergen Knoblich and Madeline Lancaster -- have used stem cells to create small human brain models. These models can never be conscious, and they lack some aspects of the human brain right now, but they're great for understanding the brain's development process under certain circumstances.
The team took induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are adult cells reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells, and provided them with nutrients needed for proper brain development. This caused the stem cells to differentiate into neuroectoderm tissue, which holds the cells that become the nervous system.
This tissue was put in a gel scaffold to create a 3D structure, and in less than one month's time, the cells turned into tiny brains at about 3 to 4 millimeters across. They also developed parts of the cortex, and about 70 percent contained a choroid plexus (for the production of spinal fluid) while about 10 percent contained retinal tissue.
The cerebellum, which is the part of the brain responsible for motor skills and language, is missing from the small brain models because this region develops later than the others.
The brains are about the size of human brains during early fetal development, and they're not larger because the stem cells would need to differentiate into blood vessels and supply nutrients to the growing organ. This is a challenging task, but if the team found a way to do this, it would allow for later stages of brain development -- meaning the ability to study more diseases like autism and schizophrenia.
But even with the brains at their current stages and size, researchers have gained insight on a condition called microcephaly, which is when a fetal brain sometimes doesn't reach full size.
Using iPS cells derived from a person with the condition, the team grew tiny brains to watch the early stages of brain development in an effort to see what goes wrong. The stem cells undergo a phase where they divide to make more stem cells, and after that, some of these stem cells switch to producing neurons. But through watching a microcephalic brain, the team found that stem cell multiplication was shorter than usual, meaning that there are not enough stem cells available to turn into neurons -- leading to a smaller brain.
They discovered that the lack of neurons was due to the need for a protein called CDK5RAP2. Once this protein was given to the small brains, the neurons increased in number.
The team hopes this can one day be used to treat or even cure developmental issues in the brain, which lead to diseases.
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