Brain Models Get an Upgrade: 3D Mini-Brains

Every year, companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google work tirelessly to upgrade their computer, software and smartphone technologies to satisfy growing demands for more functionality. Much like these companies, biomedical scientists work tirelessly to improve the research techniques and models they use to understand and treat human disease.

Today, I’ll be talking about a cool stem cell technology that is an upgrade of current models of neurological diseases. It involves growing stem cells in a 3D environment and turning them into miniature organs called organoids that have similar structures and functions compared to real organs. Scientists have developed techniques to create organoids for many different parts of the body including the brain, gut, lungs and kidneys. These tiny 3D models are useful for understanding how organs are formed and how viruses or genetic mutations can affect their development and ability to function.

Brain Models Get an Upgrade

Organoids are especially useful for modeling complex neurological diseases where current animal and 2D cell-based models lack the ability to fully represent the cause, nature and symptoms of a disease. The first cerebral, or brain, organoids were generated in 2013 by Dr. Madeline Lancaster in Austria. These “mini-brains” contained nerve cells and structures found in the cortex, the outermost layer of the human brain.

Since their inception, mini-brains have been studied to understand brain development, test new drugs and dissect diseases like microcephaly – a disease that causes abnormal brain development and is characterized by very small skulls. Mini-brains are still a new technology, and the question of whether these organoids are representative of real human brains in their anatomy and behavior has remained unanswered until now.

Published today in Cell Reports, scientists from the Salk Institute reported that mini-brains are more like human brains compared to 2D cell-based models where brain cells are grown in a single layer on a petri dish. To generate mini-brains, they collaborated with a European team that included the Lancaster lab. They grew human embryonic stem cells in a 3D environment with a cocktail of chemicals that prompted them to develop into brain tissue over a two-month period.

Cross-section of a mini-brain. (Madeline Lancaster/MRC-LMB)

Cross-section of a mini-brain. (Madeline Lancaster/MRC-LMB)

After generating the mini-brains, the next step was to prove that these organoids were an upgrade for modeling brain development. The teams found that the cells and structures formed in the mini-brains were more like human brain tissue at the same stage of early brain development than the 2D models.

Dr. Juergen Knoblich, co-senior author of the new paper and head of the European lab explained in a Salk News Release, “Our work demonstrates the remarkable degree to which human brain development can be recapitulated in a dish in cerebral organoids.”

Are Mini-Brains the Real Thing?

The next question the teams asked was whether mini-brains had similar functions and behaviors to real brains. To answer that question, the scientists turned to epigenetics. This is a fancy word for the study of chemical modifications that influence gene expression without altering the DNA sequence in your genome. The epigenome can be thought of as a set of chemical tags that help coordinate which genes are turned on and which are turned off in a cell. Epigenetics plays important roles in human development and in causing certain diseases.

The Salk team studied the epigenomes of cells in the mini-brains to see whether their patterns were similar to cells found in human brain tissue. Interestingly, they found that the epigenetic patterns in the 3D mini-brains were not like those of real brain tissue at the same developmental stage. Instead they shared a commonality with the 2D brain models and had random epigenetic patterns. While the reason for these results is still unknown, the authors explained that it is common for cells and tissues grown in a lab dish to have these differences.

In a Salk news release, senior author and Salk professor Dr. Joseph Ecker said that even though the current mini-brain models aren’t perfect yet, scientists can still gather valuable information from them in the meantime.

“Our findings show that cerebral organoids as a 3D model of brain function are getting closer to a real brain than 2D models, so perhaps by using the epigenetic pattern as a gauge we can get even closer.”

And while the world eagerly waits for the next release of the iPhone 7, neuroscientists will be eagerly waiting for a new and improved version of mini-brains. Hopefully the next upgrade will produce organoids that behave more like the real thing and can model complex neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, where so many questions remain unanswered.

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