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Bioengineered Brain Tissue: A Research Breakthrough



Bioengineers at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts have created 3-dimensional (3D), functional brainlike tissue that can be kept alive in a laboratory for more than 2 months. It is a major research achievement that promises to advance research into brain injury and disease.

The tissue was developed at the Tufts Tissue Engineering Resource Center, which is funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). The researchers generated the brainlike tissue by creating a novel composite structure of 2 biomaterials: a spongy scaffold of silk protein that neurons can attach to and a softer, collagen-based gel to encourage axon growth.

The 3D aspect of the new tissue represents a step beyond the current research situation, in which scientists grow neurons in petri dishes. Neurons grown that way can’t duplicate the compartmentalization of gray and white matter in the brain, which is critical to research into brain injuries and diseases that affect those areas differently. Moreover, attempts to grow neurons in 3D gel environments have produced tissue models that don’t allow for tissue-level function, according to a NIBIB release. By contrast, neurons in the 3D tissue act more like those seen in a rat brain, with similar electrical activity and responsiveness to stimuli such as neurotoxins. The gel-based neurons begin to deteriorate within 24 hours.

The longevity and functionality of the new tissue allow researchers to track tissue response and repair in real time, over longer periods. David Kaplan, PhD, director of the Tufts Tissue Engineering Resource Center and lead investigator, said, “The fact that we can maintain this tissue for months in the lab means we can start to look at neurological diseases in ways that you can’t otherwise because you need long timeframes to study some of the key brain diseases.”

The discovery could bring new treatments for veterans with brain injuries. In early experiments, the researchers studied chemical and electrical changes that immediately follow traumatic brain injury and changes in the brain as it responds to a drug. Calling the work “an exceptional feat,” Rosemarie Hunziker, PhD, program director of Tissue Engineering at NIBIB, said, “The hope is that use of this model could lead to an acceleration of therapies for brain dysfunction.”

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