Scientists Grow Functioning Human Neural Networks in 3-D From Stem Cells


Source: Tufts University

Summary: A team of researchers has developed 3-D human tissue culture models for the central nervous system that mimic the structural and functional features of the brain.


The new 3-D brain tissue models overcome a key challenge of previous models -the availability of human source neurons. This is due to the fact that neurological tissues are rarely removed from healthy patients and are usually only available post-mortem from diseased patients. The 3-D tissue models are instead populated with human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that can be derived from many sources, including patient skin. The iPSCs are generated by turning back the clock on cell development to their embryonic-like precursors. They can then be dialed forward again to any cell type, including neurons. With the ability to populate a 3-D matrix of silk protein and collagen with cells from patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions, the tissue models allow for the exploration of cell interactions, disease progression and response to treatment. The study findings were published in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

Brain tissue

Confocal image of flourescent makers indicating presence of neurons (green), astrocytes (red) and the silk protein-collagen matrix (blue). Image field is 460 microns. Credit: Tufts University

Compared to growing and culturing cells in two dimensions, the three-dimensional matrix yields a significantly more complete mix of cells found in neural tissue, with the appropriate morphology and expression of receptors and neurotransmitters. The growth of neural networks is sustained and very consistent in the 3-D tissue models, whether we use cells from healthy individuals or cells from patients with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. The researchers are looking ahead to take greater advantage of the 3-D tissue models with advanced imaging techniques, and the addition of other cell types, such as microglia and endothelial cells, to create a more complete model of the brain environment and the complex interactions that are involved in signalling, learning and plasticity, and degeneration.

Prof. David L. Kaplan said, “We found the right conditions to get the iPSCs to differentiate into a number of different neural subtypes, as well as astrocytes that support the growing neural networks.”


More Information: William L. Cantley et al, “Functional and Sustainable 3D Human Neural Network Models from Pluripotent Stem Cells”, ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering (2018). DOI: 10.1021/acsbiomaterials.8b00622 


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