Mini brains grown in the laboratory produce brainwaves. Now what?

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It’s hard to study the human brain. It is the most complex in the animal kingdom with its massive collection of neurons, 80-100 billion to be exact, three times more than chimpanzees. Research relating our brains to the brains of mice and monkeys can only go so far. And because of this complexity, scientists often came up short when studying diseases such as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s in the brains of monkeys and mice.

Enter minibrains.

Minibrains are small clusters of human brain cells that can be grown in a Petri dish. Floating through the agar, these small gray lumps don’t look particularly impressive, but they are allowing scientists to study actual living human brain tissue in ways they couldn’t before.

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Mini-brains grown in a lab have human-like brain activity

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A new study promises new paths to research mental illness, but raises questions about whether so-called organoids could develop consciousness

Alysson Muotri was dumbfounded when the pea-sized blobs of human brain cells that he was growing in the lab started emitting electrical pulses. He initially thought the electrodes he was using were malfunctioning.

Muotri was wrong. What the cells were emitting were brain waves — rhythmic patterns of neural activity. “That was a big surprise,” he says.

The 3D blobs of brain cells, known as organoids, are commonly used in disease and drug research to replicate organs. But no “mini-brain” had ever shown signs of brain waves before.

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Building a better brain-in-a-dish, faster and cheaper

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UC San Diego researchers develop new protocol for creating human cortical organoids, mini-brains derived directly from primary cells that can be used to better explore and understand the real thing.

Writing in the current online issue of the journal Stem Cells and Development , researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine describe development of a rapid, cost-effective method to create human cortical organoids directly from primary cells.

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