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Brain Organoids: A method for growing human brain cells that could unlock mysteries of dementia, mental illness, and neurological disorders

Stashed in: Brain, Awesome, MIT TR, Alzheimer's, Autism, Schizophrenia, Stem Cells

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Before it grows in one of Lancaster’s dishes, a brain organoid begins as a single skin cell taken from an adult. With the right biochemical prodding, that cell can be turned into an induced pluripotent stem cell (the kind that can mature into one of several types of cells) and then into a neuron. This makes it possible to do things that were impossible before. Now scientists can directly see how networks of living human brain cells develop and function, and how they’re affected by various drug compounds or genetic modifications. And because these mini-brains can be grown from a specific person’s cells, organoids could serve as unprecedentedly accurate models for a wide range of diseases. What goes wrong, for example, in neurons derived directly from someone with Alzheimer’s disease?

I'm not sure I follow.

They're growing brains in dishes from stem cells for research purposes?

Not brains. These are cerebral organoids, which possess certain features of a human brain in the first trimester of development—including lobes of cortex. The bundles of human tissue are not exactly “brains growing in a dish,” as they’re sometimes called. But they do open a new window into how neurons grow and function, and they could change our understanding of everything from basic brain activities to the causes of schizophrenia and autism.

Thanks Geege. This technology sounds like a game changer. 

Since publishing her method, Lancaster has pushed the brain tissue to further levels of complexity with neurons at later stages of development. The number of possible applications grows with each advance. Most tantalizing to Lancaster herself is the prospect that cerebral organoids might solve the deepest of mysteries: what happens in our brains to set us apart from other animals? “I’m mainly interested,” she says, “in figuring out what it is that makes us human.”

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