3-D 'Jelly Donut' Brain Works Like Ours

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Scientists have built the first three-dimensional brain-like structure that functioned for several months in the lab, showed electrical signals and responded to an injury like a real brain. Their model: a jelly-filled donut.

The researchers at the Tufts University Tissue Engineering Resource Center used a spongy composite scaffold made out of silk protein and a softer, collagen-based gel. The neurons anchored themselves onto the structure, and the gel allowed axons to grow through it.

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NIH

It’s another step toward creating a functioning artificial human brain, although the immediate goal is to help treat brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or help people suffering from traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“Our goals are to generate sustainable three-dimensional tissues so we can study brain related diseases, different kinds of drug therapies and model therapies for brain function,” said David Kaplan, the center’s director at lead author on the paper coming out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “That will be the value will be going forward.”

Kaplan and his colleagues made the scaffold into the shape of a donut for the rat brain cells, or neurons. Then they filled the hole with the gel that allowed projections called axons to connect in between. The result was something that resembled a jelly-filled donut, but acted like a real brain.

“I don’t think there is anything like this out there,” Kaplan said. “People before us have built brain structures in two dimensions, but they don’t survive for a long period of time. We can prescribe where we put cells and what will it look like. Those are the kind of things that are quite novel here that will provide a tool for the field.

”The team also dropped a tiny weight on the brain structure to simulate the kind of injury a human would get from a concussion or other traumatic hit. They were able to watch the structure and the interconnections between the neurons recover from the injury over time.

One tissue engineering expert not associated with the study says the project is a significant achievement.

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“Dr. Kaplan's work is an excellent example of combining biomaterials and neurobiology to achieve a functional micro-tissue that is electrically excitable and responsive to external stimuli,” said Adam Engler, associate professor of bio-engineering at the University of California, San Diego, in an e-mail to Discovery News. “I believe that it will encourage the field to combine such functional constructs with other approaches that tackle the vascularity challenge so that we can make larger and increasingly complex tissues in the lab.”

Of course, building a jelly-roll-like brain structure in a lab isn’t the same as real human brain. But scientists involved in this field of research say that such a goal is on the horizon, just as building other types of functioning human organs. Rosemarie Hunzicker, program director for Tissue Engineering at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, says the real challenge is not building a brain, but getting it to communicate like ours do.

“There’s no question we can structurally build something that gets close to a brain,” Hunzicker said. “Will that function in the same way? I don’t think we have the answer to that at all.”

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