Biomedical scientists have turned human stem-cells into pea-sized mini-brains with a neural structure similar to the brain of a developing embryo.
These "cerebral organoids," as they are termed formally, are the best living model of a human brain created so far.
The scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna have already used their mini-brains to investigate one neuronal disorder, microcephaly, in which the brain does not grow properly. They hope to apply the technique to more complex conditions such as autism and schizophrenia, for which no good animal models are available.
"In addition to the potential for new insights into the development of human brain disorders, mini-brains will be of great interest to the pharmaceutical and chemical industry," said Madeline Lancaster, first author of the study published online in the journal Nature.
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Other neuroscientists welcomed the breakthrough as "remarkable," "exciting," "amazing" and "extremely promising." They were struck by the way pluripotent stem cells—which can turn into any human tissue—organize themselves to grow into something as complex as an embryonic brain, given the correct lab conditions.