“Mini brains” grown in a lab and small enough to fit on the head of a pin are helping researchers better understand how the brain works and in turn, better understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome and Zika.
These little brains are actually cell networks that begin as human skin cells, evolve into neural stem cells in the lab and then form into different types of cells found in a real brain, according to National Public Radio’s Shots blog.
“The cells are communicating,” Dr. Thomas Hartung, a researcher and experimental toxicologist at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NPR. This communication helps researchers answer questions that can’t be gleaned from studying animal brain tissues. “We need human systems to tell us about humans, and that’s why this is such a big step forward,” he said.
These mini-brains grow similarly to a real brain during pregnancy and that has helped researchers answer some questions related to the Zika virus, which affects fetuses. Other mini-brain studies are planned including an examination of the brain and Alzheimer’s disease.
Hartung said mini brains greatest potential may be for testing new drugs for brain disorders and diseases. For people concerned about growing brains in labs, rest assured, mini brains stop growing when they have about 20,000 cells while a human brain has billions.
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