Scientists create human ‘mini-brain’; Breakthrough could help treat autism and schizophrenia

August 28, 2013 6:00 pm

Scientists create human ‘mini-brain’

By Clive Cookson, Science Editor

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 (IMBA) 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.

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 – organise themselves to grow into something as complex as an embryonic brain, given the correct lab conditions.

“What made the observations particularly exciting is that cells from a patient with a severe disorder of brain development [microcephaly] developed into an abnormal organoid with features analogous to many of those in the patient,” said Paul Matthews, professor of clinical neuroscience at Imperial College London. “The investigators then showed that these abnormal features could be ‘cured’ by replacing the defective gene.”

The scientists in Vienna grew mini-brains from both human, embryonic stem-cells and “induced pluripotent stem-cells” derived from adult tissues. They first converted the stem cells into neuro-ectoderm, the cell layer from which the nervous system develops, in a special culture medium.

Pieces of neuro-ectoderm were transferred to a gel scaffold that permitted 3D growth, nourished in a spinning bioreactor. The organoids stopped growing after two months, when they reached about 4mm in diameter, because they lacked the blood supply required for further development.

They resemble the brain of a nine-week-old embryo with well-defined neural structures, including cerebral cortex and retina. Their neurons show electrical activity, but Jürgen Knoblich, head of the Vienna lab, said this should not be regarded as cognition or thinking.

Dr Knoblich said it might be possible to drive more advanced neural development by giving the organoid a blood supply and sensory inputs, but it would be ethically unacceptable to create a human “brain in a dish” with cognitive activity. “If I wanted to move further in that direction, I would use mouse cells,” he said.

Martin Coath of Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute added: “Something we have grown in the lab, but on a much simpler level than a human brain, might be hooked up [in future] to electronic eyes, ears, and hands and be taught to do something – maybe something that is as sophisticated as many simple living creatures. That doesn’t seem so far off to me.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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