Real human brain Pictures

Read the story about the award-winning research

Our brains are amazing: they control our movements, thoughts and memories, regulate our body temperature and influence our emotions. But they’re also the source of neurological disorders, cognitive disabilities and psychological problems. Understanding the brain is helping scientists build a clearer picture of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, but that picture has been in two dimensions – until now.

Researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia and the University of Texas at Dallas in the US have figured out how to make more accurate models of the brain – using 3D printing. Their Elsevier Atlas award-winning article was published recently in .

At two percent of our body weight, and made up of 100 billion nerve cells, the brain is a hugely complex organ. Scientists can study the brain using animal models, but in recent years much work has gone into seeking alternatives, with the support of organizations like the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

One such alternative is creating models of brains in the lab: growing brain cells in a structural material that lets scientists observe what happens in the tissue. Until now, it has only been possible to do this in two dimensions, producing sheets of cells.

Professor Gordon Wallace and his colleagues have come up with a way of creating layered 3D structures that mimic the brain more closely, using 3D printing.

“The advent of 3D printing in recent years and the ability to create structures containing materials, and even living cells, gives us that ability to start to probe some very fundamental questions, ” said Prof. Wallace. “It lets us build structures that have more real-world applications, for example you can create a 3D structure that can facilitate the reconnection of nerves.”

The team used gellan gum to create the structures. Gellan gum is a substance made by the bacterium Sphingomonas elodea, which is often used as a gelling agent in microbiology labs. They created a bio-ink using the gellan gum, which they combined with brain cells. They found that the gellan gum helped the brain cells grow well and function as a network – much like in a real brain.

Having a 3D model will help give scientists a much more accurate image of what’s really going on in our brains, and Prof. Wallace believes this will help propel research into diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“I think the ability to study biological systems in three dimensions reveals new knowledge every day, ” he said. “The brain is enormously complex and so are neurodegenerative diseases. Looking at what’s going on in 3D – in a similar structure to the real human brain – will give us a much better idea of the biology behind these diseases, and help researchers working on ways to treat them.”

The new model has potentially huge benefits, and the collaboration that went into the research has made it even more useful. Prof. Wallace concluded:

“It’s really important to build collaborative, interdisciplinary teams to address challenges like this. This paper wouldn’t have been possible without the input of clinicians, biologists, materials scientists and chemists. Bringing those sorts of teams together is critical to address these clinical challenges.”

Commentary from Prof. Kam W. Leong, Editor-in-Chief of Biomaterials

Inaccessibility to the human brain renders molecular studies challenging, if not impossible. A brain-like structure constructed of human cells would be invaluable for applications ranging from pathway analysis to disease modeling and drug discovery. Although cerebral organoids can be formed by a bottom-up process of cellular self-assembly, a top-down fabrication technique such as 3D bioprinting offers advantages of spatial control of cellular distribution, robustness and scale-up possibility. Neuronal cells are delicate. This work innovates with the use of a peptide-functionalized gellan gum hydrogel and a printing technique that can maintain the viability and functions of the printed cortical neurons from mice. This excellent proof-of-concept study suggests the possibility of fabricating a human brain-like structure in the future using bioprinting.

A conversation with Gordon Wallace

We talked to author Professor Gordon Wallace to find out why it’s so important to study the brain in three dimensions, and how a new 3D printing technique could help tackle neurodegenerative diseases.

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Q&A

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