Previously in Science First, we introduced you to “mini-brain” models, brain organoids derived from human skin cells which were reprogrammed into neural stem cells and then differentiated into cell types found in the brain. Through the International Foundation for Ethical Research (IFER), NAVS has even helped support the generation of such models, which may reduce reliance on animal models in many areas of research.
Today, we would like to share an important update in this area of research: human-relevant, mini-brain models created at the University of California, San Diego recently made headlines for producing brain waves, with similarities to those of developing fetuses. The data were recently published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
“After these organoids are in that six-to-nine months range, that’s when [the electrical patterns] start to look a lot like what you’d see with a preterm infant,” according to Alysson Muotri, who directs the stem cell program at UCSD.
Muotri’s team wanted to learn more about how closely their organoids mimicked the human brain. They trained a computer to recognize brain waves from premature babies and compared them to brain waves from the organoids developing in the lab. “After 25 weeks, the machine gets really confused. It can no longer distinguish the brain waves coming from the human brain and the brain waves coming from the organoids,” noted Muotri.
This kind of model will be very important in helping researchers understand the earliest stages of brain development and may even provide some clues regarding the biological origins of conditions like autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And because these organoids are made from human cells, they have human relevance and may help scientists better mimic human brain problems that were unable to be replicated successfully in animals.
Some concerns are emerging about the ethical considerations of research on brain organoids themselves, although it is important to note that human mini brains are just that—mini—and contain far fewer cells than found in a human brain. But as the complexity of these models grows, it is important for researchers to have guidance on this issue. The National Institutes of Health has formed a Neuroethics Working Group to discuss this and other issues.
NAVS sees great potential in brain organoid models—which are advancing our understanding of basic human biology and of disease in a human-relevant, animal-free way—and will be looking for opportunities to fund their continued development through IFER.
Source: Hamilton, J. “After months in a dish, lab-grown mini brains start making brain waves.” NPR, August