Cost-effective "mini brains" create accessible neural model

A representation of the sphere of central nervous system tissue, or "mini brain", developed by researchers at Brown University(Credit: Hoffman-Kim lab/Brown University)

Researchers at Brown University have developed a way to create "mini brains" – 3D arrangements of neural tissue that are able to transmit electrical synapses – that, at 25 cents apiece after fixed costs, could provide an efficient means of conducting neuroscience research.

The "brains" don't have cogitation abilities, but they more closely resemble the cell makeup and structures of real brains than do 2D tissue cultures and have several properties that make them similar to real brain tissue for research purposes, including multiple cell types that are able to form synapses, or electrical connections to each other.

Measuring just a third of a millimeter wide, the brains are naturally shaped, with a similar density to rodent brains. They don't require the microelectronics or tissue culture facilities used in other techniques, or contain artificial scaffolding like collagen, while still forming an extracellular matrix of molecules secreted by the cells.

The structures are formed by first centrifuging tissue samples to obtain the right makeup of cells, then culturing those cells in special agarose molds created with technology developed by MicroTissues, Inc. – a startup founded by Jeffrey Morgan, one of the Brown researchers on the project.

According to the researchers, the spheres form complex 3-D neural networks within two to three weeks and thousands of mini-brains can be made from a small sample of living tissue from a single rodent.

Lead researcher Diane Hoffman-Kim initially developed the technique to create a test model for her own lab, where the mini brains could provide a platform to test neural cell transplantation to treat Parkinson's disease, for example.

The method could also cut down on the need to use animals in neuroscience research.

While previous research has resulted in more complex lab-grown "brains", the researchers believe this method will improve accessibility.

"The materials are easy to get and the mini-brains are simple to make," said co-lead author Yu-Ting Dingle. "We could allow all kinds of labs to do this research."

A paper describing the research was recently published in Tissue Engineering: Part C .

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