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Researchers grow human brains in a lab


August 29, 2013

A cross section of one of the "mini brains"

A cross section of one of the "mini brains"

Image Gallery (3 images)

Within the past few years, scientists have successfully grown organs such as kidneys and livers in laboratories. It’s possible that some day, such lab-grown organs could be used as transplants, particularly when grown from the recipient’s own cells. Now, a team at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences has succeeded in growing miniature human brains. While no one is suggesting that they could be swapped in for a patient’s existing brain, they could prove to be a boon to the field of medical research.

The team, led by Dr. Jürgen Knoblich, started by analyzing human stem cells – a cell type that has the capacity to change into any other type of cell found in the body. Specifically, the scientists were interested in discovering what growth conditions are required for such cells to differentiate into various types of brain tissue cells.

Once those conditions had been identified, stem cells were used to create neuroectoderm, a layer of cells which is the “starting material” from which all components of the nervous system (including the brain) are derived. Bits of that neuroectoderm were then placed within droplets of gel, which served as a three-dimensional scaffolding for tissue growth. That collection of seeded gel droplets was subsequently placed in a spinning bioreactor, to aid in the absorption of nutrients.

After spending 15 to 20 days in the reactor, the neuroectoderm fragments had formed into a piece of continuous brain tissue, known as a cerebral organoid. In the middle of that organoid was a fluid-filled cavity, that resembled a brain’s cerebral ventricle. By the 20 to 30 day mark, the tissue had differentiated into specific neural regions, including a cerebral cortex, retina, meninges (membranes that envelope the central nervous system) and choroid plexus (the area in the brain where cerebral spinal fluid is produced).

Comparison of one of the mini brains (right) to the developing brain of a mouse (left)

The little brains reached their maximum size after two months, although they continued to thrive – they’re presently 10 months old, and still going. The scientists believe that growth halted due to the lack of a circulatory system.

It is now hoped that such lab-grown brains could be used as models for understanding brain disorders, and the testing of treatments. Already, Knoblich’s team has had some success in that area.

The researchers created some of their mini brains using stem cells from someone suffering from microcephaly, a disorder in which the brain is unusually small. Sure enough, the brains that they created were even smaller than the regular mini brains. Upon analyzing them, however, the scientists discovered that their diminutive size may be due to the fact their brain cells differentiate prematurely, and that a change in the direction in which they divide may also play a part in the disorder.

A paper on the research was published yesterday in the journal Nature.

Source: Institute of Molecular Biotechnology via New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth


Simon Burdett

I wonder if it could be aimed at Dementia and similar sufferers, replacing or augmenting the brain's fading functions? I have read of Epilepsy sufferers having parts of their brain actually removed to stop the seizures, perhaps this idea could restore lost abilities?

The Skud

errr..... hmmmmmmm... eureka or yikes???


So now we can mass produce zombie food?

This is creepy. Can I add on grown brain parts for extra processing power or memory? If you complete one will it be an actual person that can live? This is scary.

Andrew Zuckerman

now lets work on spinal core damage

Dean Herbert

Hello Robocop!


this is inevitable.

Taiko Jiao

So many ethical questions are raised by this type of research.

Jason Brown

Okay, so let me be the first to suggest that they could be swapped in for a patient’s existing brain. I seem to run into suitable candidates with surprising regularity.


But could we directly connect one of these brains to a artificial body and create a half robotic, half biological supercomputer?

Tristan King

There is a possibility that gradually, organ by organ will be created biological robot. On the one hand it would be a great model for clinical research. Obviously, this is a good prospect! But, on the other hand, it could be people's ersatz in many arenas. I think, this isn't very good promise.

Rafael Kireyev

LOL @ WhyEyeWine. 8^) If they ever get to the point where one of these can think and communicate, we should be able to answer the age old question about whether or not the "soul" is a real thing independent of our physiology. My money's on "there is no soul".

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