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Human mini-brains to speed up Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research

Friday February 12, 2016

The miniature organs, which are around the size of an insect eye, contain neurons and cells of a human brain
Sarah Knapton

The Telegraph -

Tiny human mini-brains which can think have been created by scientists to speed up cures for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

The miniature organs, which are around the size of an insect eye, contain neurons and cells of a human brain and even show evidence of electrical activity, which can be measured.

"We believe that the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals, more reliance on human, cell-based models.” - Dr Thomas Hartung

Scientist at Johns Hopkins in the US say they can be mass-produced in labs to allow new drugs to be tested for safety and effectiveness without the need for animals which often do not mirror how human cells work.

"Ninety-five percent of drugs that look promising when tested in animal models fail once they are tested in humans at great expense of time and money," says study leader Dr Thomas Hartung, MD, PhD, of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Men’s and women's brains are wired differently The small balls of cells are like "mini-brains"  Photo: Alamy

"While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats. And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can often get much better information from these balls of cells than from rodents.

"We believe that the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals, more reliance on human, cell-based models.”

Dr Hartung said the brains had even started to produce ‘a primitive type of thinking.’

“Obviously there's no input or output,” he added. “It is meaningless electrical activity but the neurons are trying to communicate with each other.”

"It has the beauty that we can do this from essentially anybody. We have been doing this from five different donors so far, among them also people with genetic diseases." - Dr Thomas Hartung

The brains are made from skin cells of adults which have been reprogrammed back to a stem-cell like state, then grown into brain cells which then transform into mini-brains within eight weeks.

The team said that cells from people with certain genetic traits could also be grown to provide a model for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis.

"It also has the beauty that we can do this from essentially anybody,” added Dr Hartung. “We have been doing this from five different donors so far, among them also people with genetic diseases. So we can test for the first time the combination of genetic traits together with the effect of substances, because many disease are not explained by genes along.

“We have been doing work on Parkinson's as an example, which we're publishing, because we can really replicate some of the hallmarks of Parkinson's in human brain model."

Elderly patientThe mini-brains could help research into Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease  Photo: Alamy

The brains even showed spontaneous electrophysiological activity, which could be recorded with electrodes. To test them, the researchers placed a mini-brain on an array of electrodes and listened to the spontaneous electrical communication of the neurons as test drugs were added.

The research was presented at the annual Advancement for American Science Annual Conference (AAAS) in Washington.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/12154573/Human-mini-brains-to-speed-up-Alzheimers-and-Parkinsons-research.html