Brain damage is a scary thing, and there are a lot of ways that it can happen. The brain’s plasticity means that sometimes people can recover lost functionality, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had the ability to actually rebuild damaged brain tissue? Well, thanks to 3D printing and stem cells, that ability may not be far away! I’ve seen articles for a while now about using stem cells to grow replacement organs, but I honestly didn’t expect to see brains on the list.
In this new study, the University of Oxford researchers fabricated a two-layered brain tissue by 3D printing human neural stem cells. When implanted into mouse brain slices, the cells showed convincing structural and functional integration with the host tissue.
The cortical structure was made from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), which have the potential to produce the cell types found in most human tissues. A key advantage of using hiPSCs for tissue repair is that they can be easily derived from cells harvested from patients themselves, and therefore would not trigger an immune response.
The hiPSCs were differentiated into neural progenitor cells for two different layers of the cerebral cortex, by using specific combinations of growth factors and chemicals. The cells were then suspended in solution to generate two ‘bioinks’, which were then printed to produce a two-layered structure. In culture, the printed tissues maintained their layered cellular architecture for weeks, as indicated by the expression of layer-specific biomarkers.
When the printed tissues were implanted into mouse brain slices, they showed strong integration, as demonstrated by the projection of neural processes and the migration of neurons across the implant-host boundary. The implanted cells also showed signalling activity, which correlated with that of the host cells. This indicates that the human and mouse cells were communicating with each other, demonstrating functional as well as structural integration.
The researchers now intend to further refine the droplet printing technique to create complex multi-layered cerebral cortex tissues that more realistically mimic the human brain’s architecture. Besides their potential for repairing brain injuries, these engineered tissues might be used in drug evaluation, studies of brain development, and to improve our understanding of the basis of cognition.
I think it’ll be interesting to see what comes of this, and what a living brain can or can’t do with new tissue. Beyond that, having brain tissue on which to experiment, without having to use a living person, could end up being a huge deal for understanding our brains, and how to fix or adjust them. You can find more, including images and diagrams, at the link above.
And now I’m going to go try to drain all the goo out of my sinuses.