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Tech & Science Recreating the human brain in a lab to treat dementia and brain disorders

23:06  28 november  2019
23:06  28 november  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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Queensland researchers are recreating the human brain outside the body to better understand how our minds work.

Mini-brains — also known as brain organoids — are being created at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute with technology that enables researchers the opportunity to treat diseases.

Associate Professor Anthony White, who is part of the Cell and Molecular Neurodegeneration Lab, said their team grows the mini-brains from existing cells in the human body.

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"We can now program any cell in the body to become a brain cell with new technology," Dr White said.

"Once you have a brain cell it starts to grow in a 3D pattern, and all the genes are there to direct the brain to grow how it grows in the uterus.

"It then starts forming a structure and all the parts of the brain start to form."

Dr White told ABC Radio Brisbane's Craig Zonca and Loretta Ryan that most of the brains only grow to two or three millimetres in size.

"What stops them from growing bigger is that in your brain you have many blood vessels that deliver nutrients and oxygen to your brain," he said.

"We don't have that in a mini-brain yet and it's hard to get the oxygen to the cells, so it comes from the outside."

Why grow mini-brains?

Dr White said there are many reason to create mini-brains, but the main focus is to understand the development of the brain from childhood to adult.

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"By understanding what is happening to the brain as it grows, we can look at what is happening to the brain during disease processes," he said.

"Particularly with things like dementia and motor neuron disease, you can't understand what's happening with the brain unless you can grow them as a 3D brain in a dish.

"Having these mini-brains allows us to look at how the brain communicates across different parts of the brain and within itself."

He said many other diseases and injuries could benefit from the research.

Restoring lost memories

Dr White said the brain worked in a system similar to how people now store photos, often in cloud systems and online.

"Our memories are not stored in one place of the brain, they are stored across different areas of the brain — similar to having photos stored in different computers around the world connected by the internet," he said.

"That's how the brain works — it brings areas together from different parts of the brain to recall what you do and how you do things.

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"When people lose their memory, the memories can still be there in the brain, but they can't find a way to access those memories.

"You lose access to the memories that are there, so if we can find ways to restore the access and getting back to those memories they might still be there."

Brain within a brain

The team hopes to one day take mini-brains and put them back into people's brains to help restore brain function.

"People are working on getting blood vessels to grow in the mini-brains and when they do, then the brains will grow bigger and bigger and they could become a few centimetres in size," Dr White said.

"Parts of them could one day be put back into the human to try to restore the brain function to help them do what they could do before the injury.

"It's a long way off, building a full-sized brain, but we're getting there."

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