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Scientists grow mini-brain that can contract muscle

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Staff Writer |
Medicine   The research is is the latest in a series of sophisticated approximations

Scientists have grown a miniature brain in a dish with a spinal cord and muscles attached, an advance that promises to accelerate the study of conditions such as motor neurone disease.

The lentil-sized grey blob of human brain cells were seen to spontaneously send out tendril-like connections to link up with the spinal cord and muscle tissue, which was taken from a mouse. The muscles were then seen to visibly contract under the control of the so-called brain organoid.

The research is is the latest in a series of increasingly sophisticated approximations of the human brain grown in the laboratory – this time with something approaching a central nervous system attached.

Madeline Lancaster, who led the work at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said: “We like to think of them as mini-brains on the move.”

The scientists used a new method to grow the miniature brain from human stem cells, which allowed the organoid to reach a more sophisticated stage of development than previous experiments. The latest blob shows similarities, in terms of the variety of neurons and their organisation, to the human foetal brain at 12-16 weeks of pregnancy.

However, the scientists said the structure was still too small and primitive to have anything approaching thoughts, feelings or consciousness.

“It’s still a good idea to have that discussion every time we take it a step further,” said Lancaster. “But we agree generally that we’re still very far away from that.”

While a fully developed human brain has 80-90bn neurons, the organoid has a couple of million, placing it somewhere between a cockroach and a zebrafish in terms of volume of grey matter.

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