Lab-grown mini brains that mimic features of Parkinson’s created for the first time © Getty Images

Lab-grown mini brains that mimic features of Parkinson’s created for the first time

The breakthrough could lead to revolutionary new treatments.

Each year more than 17,000 people aged 45 and over are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the UK. Worldwide, neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability, and Parkinson’s disease is the fastest growing among them.

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Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disease that affects a person’s nerve cells, leading them to suffer from tremors, muscle stiffness and slowness of movement. There is currently no known cure.

Much of the previous research on Parkinson’s has relied on the use of mice, which while useful does not allow scientists to study all of the effects of the disease.

Now, researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) and Duke-NUS Medical School have discovered a method of producing mini brains that mimic the major physiological effects of Parkinson’s.

“Recreating models of Parkinson’s disease in animal models is hard as these do not show the progressive and selective loss of neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, a major feature of Parkinson’s disease,” said Professor Ng Huck Hui, Senior Group Leader at GIS, A*STAR, who is a senior co-author of the study.

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“Another limitation is that experimental mouse models of Parkinson’s disease do not develop characteristic clumps of proteins called Lewy bodies, which are often seen in the brain cells of people with Parkinson’s disease and a type of progressive dementia known as Lewy body dementia.”

The team grew the small pea-sized mini brains by coaxing human stem cells to develop into the bundles of neurons and other cells found in the brain.

By manipulating the DNA of the starting stem cells to match genetic risk factors found in patients with Parkinson’s disease, they were able to grow organoids with neurons that showed both Lewy bodies and the progressive loss of dopamine-producing neurons.

They have now begun work using the organoids to study how the Lewy bodies progress and have started testing drugs to slow down, or even stop, the progression of the disease.

“It’s a major challenge to extend healthy living years in an ageing global population, whose physical and cognitive performance often declines due to neurodegenerative disorders,” said Professor Tan Eng King, Deputy Medical Director, Academic Affairs, at NNI, a senior co-author of the study.

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“This discovery provides insights and a ‘humanised’ disease model that can facilitate drug testing against Parkinson’s disease and dementia.”

What is dementia?

Some 850,000 people are estimated to be living with dementia in the UK, and that’s expected to rise to two million by 2050.

Dementia describes the symptoms that someone experiences as a result of a brain disease. Such symptoms can include memory loss, mood and behavioural changes, and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving and language. More than 100 diseases can cause dementia, each with slightly different symptoms. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s.

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