Tiny human brains are being grown in a laboratory by British scientists who say they could one day be used to repair damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
The miniature organs are being made from human skin cells, which are transformed into neurons and 3D-printed into clusters so that they resemble the structure of the brain.
The scientists want to use them as models to test treatments or monitor the progress of dementia. But they also believe it may be possible one day to grow new brain tissue which can be transplanted back into damaged areas.
Although it could never bring back old memories, it may stop further degeneration.
Professor Edik Rafailov, of Aston University in Birmingham, said: “This is kind of science fiction. We’re trying to help neurons to connect and to grow together so that, ultimately, we can replace parts of the brain that have been damaged by, for example, dementia.
“In simple terms, with dementia, part of the brain is not working properly. If you can replace this part, then you can return people to a normal life.
“It’s no exaggeration to say the project could improve and prolong hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Around 800,000 people in Britain live with dementia and the figures are expected to rise substantially in the coming decades because of the ageing population. It is estimated that by 2040, around 1.2 million people will have the condition.
There are no treatments and scientists are still unsure about the underlying causes of the disease. But the micro-brains, which presently only grow to just 2mm across, could help researchers untangle how dementia gets a foothold, and speed up the development of new drugs.
Ultimately, the Aston work could allow scientists to “farm” brain parts, growing replacement brain structures in a laboratory for transplanting into Alzheimer’s patients.
Dr Eric Hill, programme director for MSc stem cells and regenerative medicine at Aston, said: “This work is incredibly exciting – we’re making something that acts like real brain tissue.
“But we face some real challenges, beyond the difficulties of creating human brain tissue, and conditions such as Alzheimer’s present themselves in older patients, so we need to find a way of accelerating the ageing process in our laboratory brains so we can understand how the diseases work.”
Dementia charities said the idea of using stem cells as a treatment for dementia was “intriguing”, but warned such therapies were likely to be a long way off.
Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “The science behind the use of stem cells as a therapy for brain diseases is still in its infancy, and while this kind of treatment is an intriguing possibility, there are huge technical challenges to overcome and fundamental questions about whether this method would be able to benefit people with dementia.”
Dr Clare Walton, research manager at the Alzheimer’s Society said: “The ability to take skin cells from an individual and re-programme them into brain cells is opening doors.
“The suggestion that these cells can be grown into brain tissue and then grafted into the brains of people with Alzheimer’s is exciting, but in reality we don’t know if this will ever be possible.”
The Aston team involves scientists from a broad range of disciplines, including stem cell biologists, neuroscientists, photonics experts and physicists.