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Mini human brains grown from stem cells in Austrian lab hold much promise

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 7:48 p.m.

LONDON — Scientists have grown the first mini human brains in a laboratory and say their success could lead to new levels of understanding about the way brains develop and what goes wrong in disorders like schizophrenia and autism.

Researchers based in Austria started with human stem cells and created a culture in the lab that allowed them to grow into so-called cerebral organoids — or mini brains — that consisted of distinct brain regions.

It is the first time that scientists have managed to replicate the development of brain tissue in three dimensions.

Using the organoids, the scientists were able to produce a biological model of how a rare brain condition called microcephaly develops — suggesting the same technique could be used to model disorders like autism or schizophrenia that affect millions of people around the world.

“This study offers the promise of a major new tool for understanding the causes of major developmental disorders of the brain ... as well as testing possible treatments,” said Paul Matthews, a professor of clinical neuroscience at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the research but was impressed with it.

Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at Britain's John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, described the work as “fascinating and exciting.” He said it extended the possibility of stem cell technologies for understanding brain development and disease mechanisms — and for discovering new drugs.

Although it starts as relatively simple tissue, the human brain swiftly develops into the most complex known natural structure, and scientists are largely in the dark about how that happens.

This makes it extremely difficult for researchers to gain an understanding of what might be going wrong in — and therefore how to treat — many common disorders of the brain such as depression, schizophrenia and autism.

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