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Scientists Develop Pea-Sized Brain to Study Stephen Hawking's Disease

Scientists Develop Pea-Sized Brain to Study Stephen Hawking's Disease

Wednesday, 27 October, 2021 - 06:00
British physicist Stephen Hawking answers questions during an interview in 2007. Photo: Reuters/Charles W Luzier

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a pea-sized brain to study amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in a new step that could lead to testing new treatment methods.

ALS, which killed the world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking at the age of 76, is a currently untreatable neurodegenerative disease that leads to rapid cognitive decline and paralysis. Because the neurological symptoms don't show up until later in life, scientists know very little about how it starts.

During the study published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers isolated stem cells from patients with ALS, and managed to grow them into "brain organoids" similar to a fetus' brain after about a dozen weeks of growing. The little blobs can't think, but can give the researchers much information about the structure, diversity, and reaction of cells in specific parts of the growing brain.

Using living brains in such experiments is impossible, at least on the ethical level, but these pea-sized "mini brains" can be beneficial for research purposes.

To get to even that simple level of development takes scientists a lot more time than nature itself to get a human's stem cells to proliferate into the millions and grow into something resembling a 'mini-brain'.

In previous efforts, researchers managed to grow brain organoids derived from the stem cells of those with Parkinson's disease for about 30 days and of Alzheimer's disease for 84 days. Researchers at Cambridge have now grown a pea-sized mini-brain to study amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for nearly a year.

The team hopes their technique of growing organoid models of neurological disease will help identify further potential drug targets in the future.

"We currently have no very effective options for treating ALS, and while there is much more work to be done following our discovery, it at least offers hope that it may in time be possible to prevent or to slow down the disease process," explains neurologist András Lakatos from the University of Cambridge.

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