Scientists have created lab-grown 3D tissue that resembles a human brain and can replicate some of its functions. Not only that, but they’ve kept it alive for over two months. (Which should probably strike me as a bit creepy, but I’ll be honest – after lunch some days, I could do with a few extra brain cells, fake or not.)
Bioengineers from Tufts University in Boston wanted to develop a way to more accurately study what happens in the brain following an illness, traumatic injury, or drug reaction.
Until now, scientists who want to study how different factors affect the brain have been limited to growing neurons in petri dishes. Although this can be useful, it doesn’t come close to simulating the complexity of brain tissue, which is comprised of two separate areas, grey matter and white matter. These areas communicate with each other but are affected very differently by injuries and illness.
A previous group of researchers managed to grow neurons in a gel, which meant they could function in more of a three-dimensional way, mimicking the way our brains make connections. But they didn’t stay alive for longer than 24 hours.
Now the team from Tufts has created something much more sophisticated. Made of silk protein and a collagen-based gel, it allows neurons to attach to it and axons (which receive messages from the neurons) to grow, producing a unique structure that better replicates the two halves of the brain and stays alive for a couple of months, meaning the effects of illness and injury can be studied over time.
Their next goal is to make it increasingly complex, building a larger model with different types of neurons. They also want to share their results with other people working in biomedical research, to speed up the creation of new treatment solutions.
Image credit: Tufts University.