Researchers have used stem cells to create tiny brains which demonstrate electrical activity. In time, this discovery could drive progress in the treatment of neurological disorders such as epilepsy and autism.
For the first time ever, scientists have detected electrical activity in tiny brains similar to that found in humans. This discovery opens up a field of research for studying complex neurological diseases. The scientists believe that these brains, developed in vitro using stem cells, are not conscient since they resemble those of premature babies. They cannot prove this however, which in itself raises a new set of ethical questions.
Active network of neurons
Around a decade ago, researchers learnt how to exploit adult stem cells to develop organoids, which are cellular structures which model an organ which they want to study. These brain organoids had never previously developed an active neuron network.
"If you had asked me five years ago whether I thought that it would be possible for a brain organoid to develop a sophisticated network capable of generating oscillations, I would have said no," explained Alysson Muotri, a biologist at the University of California in San Diego.
One of the main breakthroughs was to allow more time for the neurons to develop, much like the brain of a foetus in the womb. "The first stages of human neurological development are written in our genome," Muotri added.
Similar to the activity of a premature baby
The first waves were detected in the organoids after two months. The signals were rare and maintained the same frequency, much like very under-developed human brains. As they continued to grow, however, the waves were produced at different frequencies and at more regular intervals. By comparing the development of these organoids with curves observed in 39 premature babies, the scientists realised that the trajectories were similar.
In terms of what this could ultimately be used for, organoids could be developed using stem cells from people suffering from neurological disorders such as epilepsy and autism, and be able to model these syndromes more accurately in the hope of finding treatments.
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