Artificial brain created in the laboratory from stem cells
Artificial brain. Research team say tiny brain could be used to test drugs and study diseases, but scientific peers urge caution as data on breakthrough kept under wraps.
An almost fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the first time, claim scientists from Ohio State University. The team behind the feat hope the brain could transform our understanding of neurological disease.
Though not conscious the miniature brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, could potentially be useful for scientists who want to study the progression of developmental diseases. It could also be used to test drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since the regions they affect are in place during an early stage of brain development.
The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, claimed Rene Anand of Ohio State University, Columbus, who presented the work today at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Previous attempts at growing whole brains have at best achieved mini-organs that resemble those of nine-week-old foetuses, although these “cerebral organoids” were not complete and only contained certain aspects of the brain. “We have grown the entire brain from the get-go,” said Anand.
Anand and his colleagues claim to have reproduced 99% of the brain’s diverse cell types and genes. They say their brain also contains a spinal cord, signalling circuitry and even a retina.
The ethical concerns were non-existent, said Anand.
“We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way.”
Anand claims to have created the brain by converting adult skin cells into pluripotent cells: stem cells that can be programmed to become any tissue in the body. These were then grown in a specialised environment that persuaded the stem cells to grow into all the different components of the brain and central nervous system.
According to Anand, it takes about 12 weeks to create a brain that resembles the maturity of a five-week-old foetus. To go further would require a network of blood vessels that the team cannot yet produce.
“We’d need an artificial heart to help the brain grow further in development,” said Anand.
Several researchers contacted by the Guardian said it was hard to judge the quality of the work without access to more data, which Anand is keeping under wraps due to a pending patent on the technique. Many were uncomfortable that the team had released information to the press without the science having gone through peer review.
Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, said that while the work sounds very exciting, it’s not yet possible to judge its impact.
“When someone makes such an extraordinary claim as this, you have to be cautious until they are willing to reveal their data.”
If the team’s claims prove true, the technique could revolutionise personalised medicine.
“If you have an inherited disease, for example, you could give us a sample of skin cells, we could make a brain and then ask what’s going on,” said Anand.
You could also test the effect of different environmental toxins on the growing brain, he added.
“We can look at the expression of every gene in the human genome at every step of the development process and see how they change with different toxins. Maybe then we’ll be able to say ‘holy cow, this one isn’t good for you.’”
For now, the team say they are focusing on using the brain for military research, to understand the effect of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.