Mini-Brains: A Plate Full of Possibilities

Mini-Brains: A Plate Full of Possibilities

By Heidi Reidel

Researchers from around the globe have been tampering with a creation that could lead to the end of many diseases as well as a great reduction in animal testing: mini-brains. Mini-brains are essentially tiny, organ-like balls of cells and neurons that mimic some of the structures and functions of the human brain. Although these organoids are not fully functioning human brains, they are allowing scientists to explore the growth and effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy as well as providing a more accurate and humane test subject for drug testing.

How to Grow a Brain

Mini-brains are created by skin cells that are genetically reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) which are cells that are in an embryonic cell-like state. The cells are then stimulated to grow into brain cells. The mini-brains develop support cells and neurons and even show spontaneous electrophysiological activity. The organoids are so small that they are barely visible to the human eye at only 350 micrometers in diameter.

Though this all seems like the dawning of Westworld, the brains do not perform any cognition. To have some sort of consciousness, brains need sensory input which a brain in a dish will not be receiving. In an interview with CNN, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, a Harvard Alzheimer’s researcher, assured that the technology is far from the point of working with artificial intelligence that produces sensory input.

Improving Accuracy and Reducing Animal Testing

Because these cells replicate this embryonic state, researchers are able to study diseases that stem from the brain as they develop. Scientists can take skin cells from an adult that is suffering from Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis and study the cells as they evolve, potentially learning what causes the mutations and what can be done to intervene. Mini-brains are being used to look at the effects of the Zika virus on the developing brain. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is looking into mini-brains to test for neurotoxins in pesticides. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has suggested that mini-brains could be used to study the developmental nature of drug abuse and addiction.

The commonly anticipated use of this product, however, is drug testing, which could replace testing on rodents in many labs. Ninety-five percent of drugs fail during human testing after successful trials in animal testing. Not only could mini-brains save researchers the wasted time and expense, but they could save thousands of animals from drug testing and, perhaps, quite a few humans as well. The implications of this humane alternative are so appealing that the research done at Johns Hopkins on mini-brains has been partially funded by the Animal Research Defense Fund. The extensive applications of these brain organoids are creating a demand that researchers are looking to supply.

Commercialization of Mini-Brains

Thomas Hartung, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins, is hoping to commercialize their mini-brains in the near future. His newly created company, Organome, will be responsible for making these mini-brains available for research at the right stage of development. Hartung advertises their brain models as the most standardized, so the results of studies done on them will be as accurate and comparable as possible. Alternatively, Ohio State biomedical researcher, Rene Anand, claims that his team’s organoids have the most brain parts. He suggests that their mini-brains are the only of their kind to have mid-brains, which are crucial in studying diseases like Parkinson’s.

Regarding cost, Professor Diane Hoffman-Kim of Brown says the estimated cost for each new mini-brain could be as low as $0.25. If the commercialization of mini-brains takes off, researchers may be able to shop from various institutions for their choice of brain organoids.

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