United States Tufts University boffins have managed to create, from partitioned nerve cells and fibres, 3D doughnut-shaped, so-called brains that comprise neuron cell bodies, the centre filled with bundles of connecting axon fibres. These compositions are said, by the scientists involved, to mimic real brain compartmentalisation.
These constructions are comparatively small at only 1.2 centimetres across, and are thought to be useful for future studying of damage caused through injury or disease, into the bargain improving overall understanding of brain function, and even helping medical researchers in the hunt for new treatments. It is thought too, that these structures could help reduce levels of animal testing o some degree.
Tufts Professor David Kaplan led the bioengineering team, and was thrilled by the discovery of a fresh option when studying living brain physiology, which has the potential to help the medical profession to better understand and treat a wide range of neurological disorders. Up to this point, neurons had only been able to be grown in laboratories in haphazard and unstructured ways, but this new method replicates the complex organisation of real brain tissue.
In the brain, the tissues making up the whole separate into so-called white and grey cells – white being the long signal carrying axons – grey being nerve cell bodies. In order to create this pseudo-brain, the study team cut a ring shape from a spongy silk protein scaffold, seeded it with rat neurons and then used a collagen-based gel to fill the centre.
Within less than a week, the neurons had started to create functional networks around the scaffold pores, as well as sending axon projections through that central mass of gel to connect with neurons on the opposite side, actions which led to that centre becoming a white matter region, while the ring shape was all grey matter.
The exciting thing was that further research proved it possible to keep the brain-like constructs kept alive for over 60 days in the laboratory, and that tests involving the dropping weights onto these – from varying heights – showed how much potential there was with them for brain injury study.
Kaplan commented that this new technology would allow researchers to track the tissue response to traumatic brain injury in real time, and be able to more accurately assess the repair process over longer periods. This will make it possible to begin studying neurological diseases in ways that otherwise are simply not available to researchers, allowing monitoring that is prohibitive with humans or animals to be carried out in the mapping out of real-time neurophysiological events.
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