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Bioengineers Create Realistic Fake 3-D Brain Tissue

Update Date: Aug 12, 2014 11:39 AM EDT

In order to understand mental health illnesses and brain damage caused by trauma and other factors, researchers have to study the brain. However, due to the organ's complexity, research into a living brain has been limited. With the hopes of improving brain research, bioengineers from Tufts University have created a three-dimensional (3-D) model resembling a brain that can function for months in a laboratory setting.

"There are few good options for studying the physiology of the living brain, yet this is perhaps one of the biggest areas of unmet clinical need when you consider the need for new options to understand and treat a wide range of neurological disorders associated with the brain. To generate this system that has such great value is very exciting for our team," said the paper's senior and corresponding author David Kaplan, Ph.D., Stern Family professor and chair of biomedical engineering at Tufts School of Engineering and director of the NIH (National Institutes of Heath) funded P41 Tissue Engineering Resource Center based at Tufts.

For this project, the team set out to create a model that could perform the brain's physiological functions at the tissue level. The researchers used thousands of rat neurons that were developed in the lab. The neurons were "seeded" into spongy silk protein rings, which acted as the scaffold for brain cells. The brain cells were ale to send out axons that connected with each other with the help of a collagen-based gel.

"The tissue maintained viability for at least nine weeks - significantly longer than cultures made of collagen or hydrogel alone - and also offered structural support for network connectivity that is crucial for brain activity," Tufts University researcher Min Tang-Schomer said in the press release.

The researchers reported that the brain cells were able to pass electrical signals similarly to how they would if they were inside of a rat's brain. The team then placed a weight directly on top of the tissue and found that the neurons reacted similarly to how neurons would if they suffered from a traumatic brain injury. Based from these reactions, the researchers believe that the 3-D model can help with future brain research.

"You can essentially track the tissue response to traumatic brain injury in real time. Most importantly, you can also start to track repair and what happens over longer periods of time," Kaplan said to NBC News. "Our key for many of our 3-D tissues is a six-month goal, so we are just at the beginning with the current 3-D brain system."

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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