In what turned out to be an impressive development for the scientific and medical world, John Hopkins University researchers created ‘mini brains’ that can mimic the structure and functionality of the human brain with network of neurons and other cells.
Having these tiny brains readily available could significantly accelerate the process of drug testing and studying brain disorders. It also represents a more practical approach to better understanding Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.
In the end, if the method proves successful, mice and lab rats might soon be out of work, as they will be replaced by these artificial brains.
Senior author Thomas Hurting from Bloomberg School explained that having a brain that mimics the human cerebral system could cut the great expense of money and time that comes with animal testing. In fact, 95 percent of drugs that offer promise in animal trials turn out to be failures for humans.
“While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats,” he added. And while we’re not just clumps of cells either, researchers have gathered much clearer information from the artificial brains than from rodents.
The mini brains were created with the help of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC), and the science behind them is rather fascinating. The cells used are capable of forming human brain-like structures on their own. Grown directly from adult cells, they need only 8 weeks to reach maturity.
You’d be surprised exactly how “mini” these brains are; they measure only 350 micrometers in diameter, and the human eye can barely see them. It takes a single batch to produce hundreds of thousands of these miniature brains.
In 2 month time, researchers were able to detect four types of neurons exhibiting similar electrical activity to the human brain. If they will be used for drug testing, the team will record their activity with an array of electrodes.
At the moment, researchers are creating mini brains only with cells from the skin of healthy adults, but in time, cells from diseased people will be used too. These mini brains will provide them with a better understanding of neurological diseases, multiple sclerosis and even autism.
More than 25 million animals become the subjects of biomedical experimentations each year, undergoing various painful procedures in the name of science. Sadly, the outcome of these trials is more often than not considered unreliable.
Hartung is hopeful that “the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals and more reliance on human cell-based models.”
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