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Known as “minibrains,” these rudimentary networks of cells are small enough to fit on the head of a pin, but already are providing researchers with insights into everything from early brain development to Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Zika.

At a Sunday press conference at the neuroscience meeting, researchers said minibrains are helping them figure out how the Zika virus can disrupt human brain formation in the early stages of fetal development.

Minibrains are highly organized structures that actually start out as human skin cells. They are then coaxed in the lab to become neural stem cells, then to differentiate into some of the different types of cells found in a real brain.

What makes these lab-grown structures so useful is that they replicate part of the cell diversity and connectivity of the human brain, said Dr. Thomas Hartung, a researcher and experimental toxicologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

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Image: via NPR, Courtesy of Xuyu Qian and Guo-li Ming
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