23 March 2021

Neurons plus electronics

A new mini-laboratory for studying the brain

Tatiana Matveeva, "Scientific Russia"

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago (USA) have combined the most complex three-dimensional bioelectronic systems with human nerve cells to study on a miniature model of the brain how this organ develops and how it recovers after neurotrauma and neurodegenerative diseases, the EurekAlert portal reports! with a link to the official website of Northwestern University. The results of the study are published in the journal Science Advances (Park et al., Three-dimensional, multifunctional neural interfaces for cortical spheroids and engineered assembloids).


The cortical spheroids used in the study, similar to the "mini-brain", were obtained from induced pluripotent stem cells – cells that can acquire their "specialization" during development. Using a three-dimensional neural interface system developed by the team, the scientists were able to create a "mini-laboratory in a Petri dish" specifically designed to study the mini-brain and simultaneously collect various types of data. 

Scientists have installed electrodes to record the electrical activity of the mini-brain. They added tiny heating elements to either warm brain cultures (neural cells) or, in some cases, intentionally overheat them to cause stress. They also included tiny probes such as oxygen sensors and small LED lights to conduct optogenetic experiments. For example, they injected genes into the cells that allowed them to control neural activity using multicolored light pulses.

Then, in this mini-laboratory, scientists were able to conduct comprehensive studies of human tissues. Theoretically, the authors of the study believe, anyone can donate a limited number of their cells (for example, a blood sample, a skin biopsy). Then scientists can reprogram these cells to create a tiny spheroid of the brain – genetically the same as the real human brain. The authors believe that by combining this technology with a personalized approach to medicine using brain cultures derived from human stem cells, they will be able to create new and more effective treatments faster.

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