The winner for the most Twilight Zone-worthy story of the week goes to Brown University. Why? Well earlier this week, a group of researchers at the university successfully developed a method for manufacturing working, miniature brains. While this sounds like the work of a group of zombies planning out their weekly meals, the team’s end goal is actually much more heartwarming. The purpose, as explained in a recently published scientific paper, was to find a way to decrease the number of animals used during preclinical laboratory testing of new drugs. According to PETA, thousands of animals such as rats, dogs, primates, and rabbits are killed during the FDA’s testing process of just one new drug. Somewhere, Sarah McLachlan is purchasing a Brown University sweatshirt.
To manufacture these brains, the team reported it needs just one small living sample of tissue from a single rodent to produce literally thousands of capable specimens. Measuring in at just a third of a millimeter in diameter, Brown creates each mini brain by isolating and concentrating a series of desired cells from the living tissue before refining the samples to seed its cultures. If you’re left scratching your head after reading that last sentence, co-lead author and Brown PhD graduate Yu-Ting Dingle says the process is actually quite easy:
“The materials are easy to get and the mini-brains are simple to make,” says Dingle. “We could allow all kinds of labs to do this research.”
Though Brown’s mini-brains don’t represent the most advanced recreation of a central nervous system with working cell cultures, it is the most cost-effective and efficient method to date. In addition to the research’s fixed costs, those interested in securing a mini-brain for their own studies need to pony up a measly $0.25. Considering each brain requires just a few weeks for creation — spheres of brain tissue form after one day with complex 3D neural networks forming in two to three weeks — it’s not hard to see just how useful Brown’s work could be.
“We knew it was a relatively high-throughput system, but even we were surprised at the low cost per mini-brain when we computed it,” says the study’s senior author, Diane Hoffman-Kim.
Aside from not possessing the capability to produce sentient thoughts, each mini-brain boasts the ability to produce electrical systems which come from their own neural network connections. Moreover, the brains also contain inhibitory and excitatory neurons which fire and form synaptic connections, a density of a few hundred thousand cells per cubic millimeter, and the ability to create their own extracellular matrix. Needless to say, these are damn close to the real thing.
With research recently concluding, as well as the fact the paper just published at the end of September, these brains have yet to make a widespread appearance in labs across the country. However, judging by the sheer amount of positive research these mini-brains represent, it likely won’t be long before Brown starts raking in those quarters from droves of interested scientists.