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Doctors could grow tiny versions of human brains

This article, Doctors could grow tiny versions of human brains, originally appeared on CNET.com.


OK, so we're not able to grow regular-size brains that we can put in jars and keep in case of an emergency, but some scientists may have figured out a way to make smaller versions that can be used for testing. Warner Bros.

There are so many things we don't know about the human brain, which is ironic since coming up with new discoveries about it actually requires us to use our gray matter. Wait, is that even irony? All this makes our heads hurt.

However, we may have gotten another step closer to understanding just how this mysterious organ works now that researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine have come up with a way to concoct little human brains in the lab.


Budding brain-like "human cortical spheroids" growing in a petri dish. Stanford University School of Medicine

Well, they're not little human brains, exactly, but balls of human brain cells that grow and function like the outer mantle, or cerebral cortex, of the person from whom they were derived. The cortex handles sensory input and high-level functions such as speaking, memory and vision.

These little laminated cerebral cortex-like structures, or "organoids," could lead to insights into brain development and function, and, it is hoped, eventually into the causes of psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

"One of the major problems in understanding mental disorders is that we can't directly access the human brain," researcher Dr. Sergiu Pasca, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said in a release. "These spheroids closely resemble the three-dimensional architecture of the cortex and have gene expression patterns that mimic those in a developing fetal brain."

The cerebral-cortex-like spheres also lend themselves to analysis using conventional brain slice methods.

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"So, in a sci-fi future, it might potentially reveal what circuits went awry in the developing cortex of a particular individual with a brain disorder," explains the National Institutes of Health, which funded much of the research. Details of the findings were published last Monday in the journal Nature Methods.

Scientists have already replicated brains by extracting neurons from stem cells derived from human skin. Those samples have been helpful in areas such as testing drugs, but don't necessarily tell scientists how the brain's neural network communicates. The new model out of Stanford has resulted in a more functional, naturalistic sample of the brain, the researchers say, and the process of creating the human cortical spheroids also requires fewer steps than previous methods of making lab brains.

If all this sounds a little too scary-science for you, don't worry. The little brain samples can't yet plot email scams or dream up bad movie scripts -- quite yet at least.

"They do not even begin to approach the complexity of a whole human brain," said Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health. "But that is not exactly what we need to study disorders of brain circuitry."

Art and science of the human brain (images)

"Brains: The mind as matter," an exhibit running at the Wellcome Collection in London through June 17, seeks to explore humans' impact on the brain -- how it's been studied and regarded over time, for example, and what's been done to it in the name of scientific inquiry and medical intervention.

The free exhibit features more than 150 artifacts, including real brains; manuscripts and illustrations that reflect shifting perceptions of the brain; photos of patients suffering from neurological disorders; surgical film sequences; and an interactive feature that gives visitors a close-up, 360-degree view of a preserved human male brain.

Pictured is a plaster copy of an 1825 cast from the head of 24-year-old Victoire, who suffered from microcephaly, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that restricts brain development and leads to a smaller head size than usual.

The cast of the young woman's head came from the collection of the British Phrenological Society, which survived until 1967. Phrenology, the controversial study of cranial shape as an indicator of mental faculties and character, was dismissed by many as a pseudo-science.

The skull pictured in this 20th century lithograph, supposedly that of a woman who worked as a prostitute, is thought to have come from the collection of Franz Joseph Gall, founder of modern phrenology. It's referred to in Gall's 1819 publication "The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular."

The illustration is meant to demonstrate the phrenological theory that the skull's shape and size relates to character.

That brain you're looking at contributed to computing history. It belonged to Charles Babbage, inventor of the famed Difference Engine, a computer and printer designed by the English mathematician in the 1840s to solve the problem of notoriously inaccurate printed numerical tables.

Babbage himself decided that he wanted to donate his brain to science, and in a letter accompanying the donation, his son Henry wrote:

"I have no objection...to the idea of preserving the brain...Please therefore do what you consider best...[T]he brain should be known as his, and disposed of in any manner which you consider most conducive to the advancement of human knowledge and the good of the human race."

Another preserved brain. This one belonged to Helen Hamilton Gardner, an author and leading advocate for women's suffrage and educational rights in the early 20th century. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Gardner to the United States Civil Service Commission, making her the first woman to occupy such a high federal position.

Gardner strongly advocated the position that the female brain was not "demonstrably different from that of a man under the same conditions and with the same opportunities for development."

Her brain currently rests in the Wilder Brain Collection in Cornell University's psychology department. Cornell anatomy professor Burt Green Wilder believed that studying the anatomy of the human brain could yield great insights into psychology; his own brain was added to the collection after his death in 1925.

Going from the 20th century back at least a few thousand years is this mummified cerebral hemisphere believed to date back to around 2010 BCE. It was excavated in 1900 from a burial ground of the XIth Dynasty in the temple of Mentuhotep II at Egypt's Deir el-Bahari and is among the oldest brain specimens known.

After being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1995, American artist William Utermohlen chronicled his descent into dementia through a series of powerful self-portraits drawn over 12 years. He started painting this oil on canvas, "Self Portrait with Saw," in 1997, on the day he willed his brain to science. Utermohlen died in 2007 in his seventies.

Harvard University scientists made a neuroimaging breakthrough in 2007 when they developed the Brainbow technique. First demonstrated in a transgenic mouse, the method allows whole arrays of similar neurons in a brain to be distinguished from one another through different combinations of fluorescently colored proteins.

Images resulting from the technique are digitally recolored to enhance the contrast between cells and map the complex interconnections in the nervous system. As this image demonstrates, Brainbow technique can make for striking images; some have won awards in science photography competitions.

This striking resin model of the brain's blood vessels could win an art award of its own. To make a cast like this, the vascular system of an animal or organ can be injected with liquid plastic that fills the blood space and rapidly solidifies. Acid or alkaline solution is then used to corrode the surrounding tissue, leaving a hardened cast that accurately represents the original vascular system and can be examined with electron microscopes.

A wax model of the brain by Joseph Towne, known as one of the most skilled makers of wax medical models of the 19th century, as well as a talented marble sculptor. Towne worked for Guy's Hospital in London, and also worked for overseas clients on commission. Towne was known for embracing new technologies such as stereoscopic photography to help achieve realism in his anatomical models.

This wax model adopts a pose favored by Towne that shows the scalp folded over to reveal the underlying surface of the cerebral cortex with the dura mater (the protective membrane, part of the meninges) still covering the left hemisphere.

The 19th century model may have been made to teach neuroanatomy to medical students or, possibly, for display in medical exhibitions open to the general public.

It might look like a game of "Operation," but it's actually a human electroencephalography (EEG) headboard used in experiments conducted by Britain's Burden Neurological Institute in the '60s. Doctors inserted the electrodes through the skull and placed them directly into the brain to stimulate specific areas and record the responses.

This brain-related device was developed by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and a pioneer in the field of eugenics. Using "anthropometric" devices like this headspanner from around 1896, he sought evidence of links between physical appearance and the supposed evolutionary progress of various groups.

Though "Brains: The mind as matter" doesn't focus much on the biology of the brain, this interactive feature gives visitors a chance to get a close-up, 360-degree view of the brain's structure. This brain was removed from a man's skull shortly after his death and came from the Parkinson's UK Brain Bank at Imperial College.

Scientists stress the importance of having healthy brains to study alongside damaged or diseased brains as they provide valuable "control" tissue that can be used in vital neuroscience research.

(Via Popular Science)