Almost ‘fully-formed’ brain grown in lab for first time

© Amir Cohen
An almost fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the very first time, in a breakthrough that could lead to a better understanding of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's. The brain is comparable to that of a five-week-old fetus.

About the size of a pencil eraser, the brain was created by a research team at Ohio State University, Columbus. Their work was presented at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Tuesday.

The brain was engineered from human skin cells, and is the most complete human brain ever to be created in a laboratory.

The creation process involved converting the skin cells into pluripotent cells. That is, stem cells that can be programmed to become any tissue in the body. These were then put in an environment which persuaded them to grow into different components of the brain and central nervous system.


“We provide the best possible environment and conditions that replicate what’s going on in utero to support the brain,” professor of biological chemistry and pharmacology Rene Anand, who presented his team's work at the symposium, said in a statement.

The team claims to have reproduced 99 percent of a fetal brain's diverse cell types and genes.

“It not only looks like the developing brain, its diverse cell types express nearly all genes like a brain,” Anand said.

Along with all major regions of the brain and multiple cell types, the model also boasts a spinal cord, signaling circuitry, and even a retina.

According to Anand, the presence of such areas has the potential to revolutionize the study of autism as well as developmental and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

“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,” Anand said.

He went on to stress that the brain is not conscious, meaning there were no ethical dilemmas involved in its creation.

“We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way,” said Anand.

It took about 15 weeks to develop the brain to the maturity of a five-week-old fetus.

“If we let it go to 16 or 20 weeks, that might complete it, filling in that one percent of missing genes," Anand said. "We don’t know yet.”