Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts have grown a 3D human tissue model that mimics “structural and functional features of the brain” and demonstrates “neural activity”.
That sounds a lot like scientists have figured out how to grow a human brain.
They’ve come close in the past. Brain tissue cells have been grown and cultured in two-dimensional models, but they don’t have the complexity of a natural neural network.
And 3D models that have successfully been grown have, until now, been missing a key ingredient — neurons sourced from living humans.
It’s difficult to convince someone living to part with their brain tissue. But a bit of skin, not so much.
And with advances in stem cell technology, we just took a step down the road toward building a fresh brain out of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that can be taken from many sources, including skin.
iPSCs are created by turning back the clock on cell development to their embryonic-like precursors. They can then be dialled forward again to any cell type — and that includes neurons.
Once you’ve got your neurons, they can be trained to grow on scaffolds made of silk protein and collagen.
Which is exactly, for the first time, what came out of a collaborative effort between engineering and the medical science researchers from Tufts University School of Engineering, Tufts University School of Medicine, the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts, and the Jackson Laboratory.
Although they prefer to call it “a model of the brain environment”. This is what it looks like:
While others have used iPSCs to create “brain-like organoids”, the Tufts’ brain has a porous structure, which gives neurons crucial oxygenation and nutrients so they can “function in a native state”.
And a “window” in the centre of each 3D matrix allows researchers to visualise the growth, organisation and behaviour of individual cells.
You can let your imagination run wild with thoughts of rogue nations and zombie armies, but scientists are much nobler.
“The growth of neural networks is sustained and very consistent in the 3D tissue models, whether we use cells from healthy individuals or cells from patients with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease,” said William Cantley, from the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts and first author of the study.
Because they can use cells from patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions, this breakthrough means they can now study how such diseases start, progress, and respond to treatment.
The team is already thinking about how to make their model more complex, and study the kind of interactions that are involved in signaling, learning and plasticity, and degeneration.
The full report was published today in ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, a journal of the American Chemical Society.
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