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3D-printed tiny human brains

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Scientists from the University of Wollongong
in Australia are 3D-printing their own artificial human brains in the
lab, in an ambitious project that sounds like something out of science
fiction.

Using human stem cells, the team is growing specific
brain cell types, such as neurons, onto 3D brain-like scaffolding. The
hope is that their model will allow them to properly understand the
mechanics of human-specific diseases, such as schizophrenia, and also
investigate potential treatments. After all, animal models can only tell
us so much.
The brain is mind-bogglingly complex, undoubtedly the most complex
thing known to mankind,” said Jeremy Crook, the project leader, in a press release last year, when the project was first announced.

“Unlike
other tissues of the human body, obtaining functional brain tissue from
patients for investigation is ordinarily not feasible,” he explained.

“Therefore,
we are using additive fabrication technologies, such as 3D
bio-printing, to carefully control our tissue constructs from the nano,
through to micro and right up to macro dimensions, deliberately
organising live cells within the construct to closely mimic functional
brain tissue.”

The team uses what are known as biomaterials to
3D-print their scaffolding. This includes materials such as “smart”
polymeric gels, which are able to not only hold cells in place, but also
encapsulate them. They can also conduct electricity to help
differentiate the cells into specific excitable brain cell types.
Initial
research describing how the team has used electrical stimulation with
conducting polymers to differentiate human stem cells into neural cells has now been published in the journal Tissue Engineering: Part C.

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To
better understand what is going on inside the brains of schizophrenics –
a disease that’s particularly hard for researchers to study in detail
as it only occurs in humans – the team is now taking adult cells from
patients with schizophrenia, and ‘resetting’ them into induced pluripotent stem cells. 
These
stem cells can then be used to produce all the cells of a functioning
brain, and hopefully show the team what’s going wrong.
The
research is still in its early stages, but it’s hoped in the future that
the little lab-grown brains could help scientists find out more about
exactly how our minds work, and also allows them to test new potential
treatments without the use of animal models.

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