Scientists ‘grow’ a brain in a laboratory for the first time

Organ created from skin cells is equivalent in development to that of a human foetus at nine weeks

Science Editor

Scientists have grown miniature human brains from skin cells in a laboratory for the first time as part of a study into the development of the most complex of all our organs, and the ultimate source of human creativity and consciousness.

The mini-brains are less than 4mm across but researchers say  that they are equivalent in development to the brain of a human foetus at about nine weeks’ gestation, and even have the complex three-dimensional structure of a real embryonic brain.

Previous attempts at growing brain tissue in a laboratory dish have focused on culturing the nerve cells in two dimensions on a flat plate of nutrients, but the latest study used a droplet of nutrient gel as a three-dimensional scaffold on which the growing brain cells organised themselves into the miniature organ.

The scientists have called the primitive brains “cerebral organoids” and have emphasised that the living structures are still far from being described as true human brains with a potential for self-awareness or consciousness – a threshold of development that would be ethically wrong to cross, they said.

“Three or four millimetres do not sound very much, but for someone who is used to working with a microscope it’s quite a lot. The individual brain areas that we find in our organoids are not so very far away from the size of the endogenous organs at this stage of development,” said Juergen Knoblich, of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna.

“It is absolutely not the goal of our work to generate higher-order brain structures. For us, growing them bigger is not the issue. At this size they can hold quite a lot of complexity… this is one of the cases where size doesn’t really matter,” Dr Knoblich said.

The mini-brains were created from human skin cells that were converted into stem cells by a well-established genetic engineering technique. This produced induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells which were then coaxed by chemical stimulants and nutrients to develop into mature brain cells that self-organised into the rudimentary structures of an embryonic brain, such as the cerebral cortex.

Dr Knoblich said that the organoids have already shed light on a condition called microcephaly, when the brain fails to grow to its correct size in the womb, and also could eventually help research into conditions such as autism and schizophrenia, which both involve unknown malfunctions in early brain development.

“There have been numerous attempts recently to model human brain tissue from human cells. [Scientists] have gone on to generate an eye, a pituitary gland and even a human liver, but so far the most complex of all human organs, which is the brain, has not been susceptible to these kinds of cultures,” Dr Knoblich said.

“[This technique] allows us to study the human-specific features of brain development. We can analyse the function of individual genes in a human setting. We have been able to model one disease, microcephaly, but ultimately we’d like to move to more common disorders such as schizophrenia or autism,” he said.

“So far drug testing has been done on animal models and isolated human cells. These organ-culture models offer the possibility of testing drugs directly without animal experiments to get more informed results,” he added.

The study, published in the journal Nature, showed that it was possible to convert skin cells into a specialised form of embryonic tissue called the neuroectoderm, which produces all the components of the brain and nervous system. Organoids from a patient with microcephaly fail- ed to grow as fast as other organoids, but this could be corrected by replacing a defected gene responsible for the disorder, the study showed.

Andrew Jackson, of the Medical Research Council’s Human Genetic Unit in Edinburgh, who collaborated with Dr Knoblich, said that the brain organoids provides a new way of studying the human brain, the most complex structure known with an estimated 100 billion nerve cells and many times the number of nerve connections.

“Being able to generate tissue with such complexity in cell culture is a significant advance for the study of human disease in the laboratory,” he said.

Oliver Brustle, a stem-cell expert at the University of Bonn, said: “These structures are not just peculiar lab artefacts… the organoids re-create early steps in the formation of the human brain’s cerebral cortex, and so lend themselves to studies of brain development and neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea