Tuesday 25 July 2017

'Growing brains in a dish' will help in fight against disorders

Floating in a nutrient-rich broth, the stem cells were coaxed into becoming precursor neurons and finally mature brain circuits. Stock picture
Floating in a nutrient-rich broth, the stem cells were coaxed into becoming precursor neurons and finally mature brain circuits. Stock picture

John von Radowitz

Neural circuits from the most advanced part of the human brain have been recreated in tiny 3D balls of cells that could help scientists investigate psychiatric disorders.

Neural circuits from the most advanced part of the human brain have been recreated in tiny 3D balls of cells that could help scientists investigate psychiatric disorders.

The "brains in a dish", known as spheroids, were grown from stem cells and followed the same developmental process that takes place in the womb.

Two linked spheroids were made, each measuring about one-sixteenth of an inch across.

They modelled different areas of the forebrain including the cerebral cortex, the most highly evolved "thinking" part of the brain.

The research is the first to allow key events unfolding in the brain at late stages of foetal development to be viewed in real time.

As part of the proof-of-concept study, the scientists generated abnormal brain circuits typical of Timothy syndrome, a rare inherited condition leading to heart problems, autism and epilepsy. They were able to pinpoint the defective development path and correct it using two drugs.

Lead scientist Dr Sergiu Pasca, from Stanford University in the US, said: "We've never been able to recapitulate these human brain developmental events in a dish before.

"The process happens in the second half of pregnancy, so viewing it live is challenging. Our method lets us see the entire movie, not just snapshots.

"Our method of assembling and carefully characterising neuronal circuits in a dish is opening up new windows through which we can view the normal development of the foetal human brain.

"More importantly, it will help us see how this goes awry in individual patients."

The research, reported in the journal 'Nature', is expected to open a new window on a wide range of brain conditions including mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

To create the "brains" the scientists first reprogrammed ordinary skin cells, transforming them into induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells) with the properties of embryonic stem cells. Floating in a nutrient-rich broth, the stem cells were coaxed into becoming precursor neurons and finally mature brain circuits.

Irish Independent

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