Scientists in Singapore have grown a tiny version of a portion of the human brain.
These “organoids,” grown from human tissue and small enough to fit several on a fingernail, replicate functions of the human mid-brain. The mid-brain is an information-transfer hub that controls the senses, physical movement and produces dopamine, a key to fluid physical movements. Parkinson’s Disease is associated with low dopamine levels.
That’s the point: Scientists grew these mini-midbrains to research possible Parkinson’s treatments directly, instead of using animal brains or computer simulations to test drugs and understand how the disease originates and progresses.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have grown mini-forebrains to study the workings of the Zika virus on fetal development.
Growing mini-brains isn’t a new technology, but it’s been expensive due to the precise environment and nutrients required. The Hopkins group developed a new and cheaper way, thanks to three high-school summer interns who used a 3-D printer to create a more cost-effective “bioreactor” to do the job.
The pinhead-size forebrains allowed the scientists to confirm what simulations and petri-dish experiments had indicated: The Zika virus invades stem cells in the brain and, instead of allowing them to develop normally, turns them into virus factories.