For the very first time, scientists have managed to create tiny, embryonic brains in test tubes. Say hello to baby Frankenstein.
Researchers at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Science have successfully created "cerebral organoids", little balls of brain just a few millimetres in size that actually have the same distinct, defined sections that a real, developing brain would have. They are the babiest of brains.
Each cerebral organoid is the equivalent of the sort of brain you'd expect to find in a nine-week-old embryo. So they're developing, but not quite developed. Madeline Lancaster, one of the paper's authors, described the brains this way to The Guardian:
The cerebral organoids display discrete regions that resemble different areas of the early developing human brain. These include the dorsal cortex identity — the dorsal cortex is the largest part of the human brain — they also include regions representing the ventral forebrain and even the immature retina.
Even at this super early stage of development, scientists expect that these organoids could be a big help in discovering the secrets of how neurological problems like schizophrenia and autism are expressed in early development. On top of that, they could be useful for testing drugs on something more human than a rate or petri dish of isolated cells.
The organoids were created by throwing some stem cells into a vat of gel designed to mimic the human womb. And after just a few weeks, they began to coalesce into the tiny brain-balls. That's where the growth stops though, and so far it seems impossible that they could ever grow any larger or more complex without the sophisticated sort of arterial plumbing that natural brains can grown on their own.
So we're not quite on our way to brains in jars, but scientists have now successfully created heart tissue that can beat, 3D-printable kidneys, and stem cell brainlets. And as amazing as this all is, don't expect and full-sized jar-grown brains anytime in the near future. Then again, that sounds creepy enough to be worth avoiding. [The Guardian, New Scientist]