Tiny bare-bones brains made in lab dishes

Simpler version of minibrains responsive enough to use for drug testing


MODEL BRAIN In this minibrain, nerve cells (red) knit themselves together and send messages. Cell nuclei are shown in blue.  

Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing

WASHINGTON — Tiny orbs of brain cells swirling in lab dishes may offer scientists a better way to study the complexities of the human brain. Toxicologist Thomas Hartung described these minibrains, grown from stem cells derived from people’s skin cells, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Insights from experiments on animals are often difficult to apply to humans, Hartung, of Johns Hopkins University, said in a news briefing February 12. “We need something else,” he said. “We are not 150-pound rats.”

These minibrains aren’t flashy. Other minibrain systems created by scientists in the past have complex neural structures and elaborate development (SN: 9/21/13, p. 5), representing the Ferraris and Maseratis of minibrains, Hartung said. In contrast, he said, his minibrains are Mini Coopers. But these bare-bones models, made of busy nerve cells and support cells in a sphere about the size of a fly eye, offer a standardized system that can reliably test the effects of a wide range of drugs.

Hartung and colleagues are developing a company to make minibrains quickly available to researchers who could use them to study such disorders as autism, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, he said. The minibrains would cost about as much as a lab rat. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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