Cambridge Researchers Grow “Mini-Brain”

A team of researchers from Cambridge University has grown a miniature brain in a dish. Although the organoid is about the size of a pea, it has successfully contracted muscle tissue. This development is hoped to bring a new understanding of how the human brain develops and how neurological disorders operate.

Growing the Miniature Organ

For their study, the team used a small mass of human stem cells. They placed this alongside slices of spinal cord and muscle tissue that were obtained from a mouse. They observed that the stem cells grew connections rapidly and fused with the mouse tissue. The team found that the “mini-brain” went on to send electrical signals to the mouse muscle cells, and this caused the muscle tissue to contract. The electrical signals and neural activity were measured using long-term live microscopy and electrode arrays.

The demonstration and observations made were the first of their kind. The research study is detailed in a paper published in Nature Neuroscience. A new method of growing brain cells was used, and this allowed the “mini-brain” to reach a more advanced level than previously seen, according to Madeline Lancaster, the lead author in the study. The new method involved sending the growing brain cell mass floating in a nutrient-rich liquid while held up by a porous membrane. This method helped to ensure that the growing mass had an adequate nutrient supply at all times. The final “mini-brain” was on a similar level to a 12-16 week fetal brain as far as organization and the diversity of its nerve cells.

The size and complexity of the “mini-brain” may not be much, but the team from Cambridge highlights that the miniature organ can still be useful in brain and nerve development research. Understanding the nerve structure for different diseases and neurological disorders is one of the areas they are targeting with their future research.


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