A nearly fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the first time ever, according to scientists from Ohio State University — though having not yet passed peer review, other scientists remain sceptical.
The miniature, pencil eraser-sized organ is comparable with that of a five-week-old-foetus — although it isn’t conscious — and was created from reprogrammed adult human skin cells.
According to lead researcher Rene Anand, who presented his team’s work at Florida’s Military Health System Research Symposium, the lumpy mass of nerve cells is the most complete human brain model yet engineered.
Previous attempts have only managed to create partial “cerebral organoids” missing various functions of an entire brain. Anand explained that he and his colleagues had “grown the entire brain from the get-go”.
However, other scientists in the field have cautioned against jumping to any conclusions before the study is properly peer reviewed. Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, said: “When someone makes such an extraordinary claim as this, you have to be cautious until they are willing to reveal their data.”
Full details of the brain-growing process are currently being kept under wraps by Anand, who has a pending patent on the technique. However, it’s believed adult skin cells were converted into pluripotent stem cells through a process of gene alteration. The cells were then grown in a lab where they were engineered to develop into the full range of brain tissues.
In the meantime, Anand and his team are claiming to already have plans for using the brain model for military research, such as understanding the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers.
The lab-grown grey matter has around 99 percent of the foetal brain’s cell types and genes, the team says, and even includes a fledgling spinal cord and the beginnings of an “eye”.
It’s hoped that the tiny brain could be used to study the progression of neurological disease and test new drugs for conditions including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Anand commented: “We’ve struggled for a long time trying to solve complex brain disease problems that cause tremendous pain and suffering. The power of this brain model bodes very well for human health because it gives us better and more relevant options to test and develop therapeutics other than rodents.”