News & Perspectives

Mini-Brains

Mini-Brains

Growing brain cells in a Petri dish
Perspective// Posted by: Lori Zimmer / 12 Apr 2016
Brain spheroid

Is a brain in a bowl still a person? While this may be unclear, recently grown “mini-brains” may one day help fight autism and schizophrenia.

Researchers from groups at Yale and Stanford University have created a fleet of microscopic mini-brains that can live freely in a Petri dish. Derived from skin cells, the lab-grown “human cortical spheroids” are a viable tool that may allow scientists to better understand mental illness, as well as test out treatments and drugs without disturbing a living patient.

Each mini-brain starts from skin cells from live donor patients, which are then converted to blank stem cells. Once the stem cells have developed and grown in a Petri dish, they are transferred to a larger container that encourages them to grow in three-dimensional clusters. The clusters are then treated with molecules that coerce the blank cells into becoming brain cells—eventually developing a neuron and synapse system that reacts, functions and communicates much like a human brain.

Scientists have grown miniature livers, hearts and other organs successfully in the past, which enable “cruelty-free” testing and research on functional organs, rather than organs harvested post-mortem. And because each mini-brain is grown from an individual patients’ cells, scientists hope the corresponding brain will give specific insights into the personality of the donor—leading, hopefully, to personalized solutions.

The fabrication of these brain cells could potentially allow scientists to create usable donor brain tissue. One day, it may even lead to the ability to combat psychological disorders in utero. But that day is still a long way away. For the moment, at least, a mini-brain in a Petri dish does not a person make.

Lori Zimmer
Lori Zimmer, New York based writer, curator and creator of Art Nerd New York. She regularly contributes to an array of art publications.