Building a Human Brain

Building a Human Brain

Monday, 5 March, 2018 - 10:30
Belgian researcher holds a human brain at the psychiatric hospital in Duffel, Belgium, July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman
London- Asharq Al Awsat
In a white lab coat and blue latex gloves, Neda Vishlaghi peers through a light microscope at six milky-white blobs. Each is about the size of a couscous grain, bathed in the pale orange broth of a petri dish. With tweezers in one hand and surgical scissors in the other, she deftly snips one tiny clump in half.

When growing human brains, sometimes you need to do some pruning.

The blobs are 8-week-old bits of brainlike tissue. While they wouldn’t be mistaken for Lilliputian-sized brains, some of their fine-grained features bear a remarkable resemblance to the human cerebral cortex, home to our memories, decision making and other high-level cognitive powers.

Vishlaghi created these “minibrains” at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, where she’s a research assistant. First she immersed batches of human pluripotent stem cells — which can morph into any cell type in the body — in a special mix of chemicals.

The free-floating cells multiplied and coalesced into itty-bitty balls of neural tissue. Nurtured with meticulously timed doses of growth-supporting ingredients, the cell clumps were eventually transferred to petri dishes of broth laced with Matrigel, a gelatin-like matrix of proteins.

On day 56, the blobs display shadowy clusters of neural “rosettes.” Under a laser scanning microscope, razor-thin slices of those rosettes reveal loose-knit layers of a variety of dividing neural stem cells and the nerve cells, or neurons, they give rise to. The layered structures look similar to the architecture of a human fetal brain at 14 weeks of gestation.

Across the globe, labs such as this one, led by UCLA developmental biologist and neuroscientist Bennett Novitch, are cultivating thousands of these brainy clumps for research. Less than five years ago, a team of biologists in Austria and the United Kingdom and one in Japan wowed the world when they announced they had made rudimentary bits of 3-D human cerebral cortex in a dish. Since then, researchers have been eagerly tinkering with techniques for producing these miniature brain models, like chefs obsessively refining their favorite recipes.
“It’s like making a cake: You have many different ways in which you can do it,” says Novitch, who prefers using the Japanese method with a few tweaks. “There are all sorts of little tricks that people have come up with to overcome some of the common challenges.”

For instance, because the brain blobs lack a built-in blood supply, they must absorb enough oxygen and nutrients from the tissue-culture broth to remain healthy. To help, some labs circulate the broth around the tissue clumps. The UCLA researchers choose instead to grow theirs at higher oxygen levels and chop the blobs at the 35-day mark, when they are as wide as three millimeters, and then about every two weeks after. Sounds radical, but the slicing gives cells on the inside — some of which start dying — exposure to much-needed oxygen and nutrients. Those divided bits then continue growing separately. But cutting can be done only so many times before the expanding rosette structures inside are damaged.

With all the experimenting, researchers have cooked up a lot of innovations, including some nifty progress reported in just the last year. Scientists have concocted tiny versions of several brain regions ranging from the hypothalamus, which regulates body temperature, thirst and hunger, to the movement-controlling basal ganglia. Electrical chatter among neurons, reflecting active brain circuits, has been detected. And research groups have recently begun linking bits of specific regions like Legos. Scientists have even observed some early developmental processes as they happen within the human brain blobs.

Stem cell payoff
The work is part of a broader scientific bonanza that comes from coaxing human stem cells to self-assemble into balls of organlike tissue, known as organoids, that are usually no bigger than a lentil. Although the organoids don’t grow enough to replicate entire human organs, these mini-versions can mimic the 3-D cellular infrastructure of everything from our guts to our lungs. That’s something you can’t get from studies of rodents, which have different biology than humans do.

Mini-organ models promise enormous advantages for understanding basic human biology, teasing apart human disease processes, and offering an accurate testing ground for finding or vetting drug therapies. And by creating personalized organoids from the reprogrammed cells of patients, scientists could study disease in a very individualized way — or maybe even use organoid structures to replace certain damaged tissues, such as in the liver or spinal cord.

“Organoids offer an unprecedented level of access into the inner workings of the human brain,” Novitch says, noting that our brains are largely off-limits to poking and cutting into for research. If scientists can study accurate models of working neural circuits in these brain bits, he and others say, researchers might finally get a handle on uniquely human neurological conditions. Such disorders, which include epilepsy and, experts theorize, schizophrenia and autism, can arise when the brain’s communication networks develop off-kilter.

How to build a brain
Methods for making bits of brainlike tissue tap the innate tendency of human pluripotent stem cells to form neural tissue. Here’s one group’s process.

Day 0: Around 9,000 stem cells are transferred into V-shaped wells and suspended in a cocktail of vitamins, amino acids and (for the first six days) Y-27632, a chemical to prevent the stem cells from committing suicide. Within a few days, the multiplying cells self-aggregate into tiny balls of neural tissue. The broth is refreshed every two to three days.

Day 18: The enlarging neural balls are moved into petri dishes of broth with CDLC, a supplement that provides fats. High oxygen levels (40 percent oxygen, 5 percent carbon dioxide) help the tissue absorb enough oxygen. Well-defined clusters, or rosettes, show early layers of various types of developing neural cells by weeks four to five.

Day 35: At 2 to 3 millimeters wide, the brainlike organoids are cut in half to give cells inside more access to nutrients and oxygen. The tissue clumps are nurtured in new broth infused with growth enhancers: a gelatin-like matrix of support proteins called Matrigel, B27 vitamin supplement, heparin and the growth promoter LIF.

Day 56: Organoids are again snipped in half and transferred to new petri dishes made of oxygen-permeable plastic to optimize access to oxygen for healthy growth. From here on, the organoids are halved every two weeks or so, routinely surviving as long as 150 days.

But the research is still in its early days. Although there’s been exciting headway, studies sometimes overstate the extent to which human brain organoids reproduce features of actual developing brain tissue, says stem cell biologist Arnold Kriegstein of the University of California, San Francisco. The minimodels still lack many basic components, including certain cell types, a blood-vessel network and inputs from other neural regions.

Another stumbling block is that brain organoids can vary a lot from protocol to protocol, or even batch to batch within the same lab. “The major focus now needs to be on reproducibility, and being able to get an approach that you can rely on to give you the same outcome each time,” Kriegstein says.

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