Snapshots of Life: Growing Mini-Brains in a Dish

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circle of green mesh that merges into the center connecting to an elongated pink oval.

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Credits: Collin Edington and Iris Lee , Department of Biomedical Engineering, MIT

Something incredible happens – both visually and scientifically – when researchers spread neural stem cells onto a gel matrix in a lab and wait to see what happens. Gradually, cells differentiate and self-assemble to form cohesive organoids that look like miniature brains!

In this image of an organoid mini-brain, the center consists of a tuft of neuronal bodies (magenta), surrounded by a complex network of connected extensions (green) through which these cells relay information. Scattered throughout the mini-brain are star-shaped astrocytes (red) that serve as support cells.

Collin Edington and Iris Lee created this striking image in the laboratory of Linda Griffith at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge. While it looks like a single image, the image took about 12 hours to produce, using a confocal laser scanning microscope to zoom in and capture the microscopic details, pixel by pixel, before digitally sewing the set of images together. For his diligent efforts, the team was one of 10 winners of the 2017 KO Institute Picture Awards at MIT, created to publicly recognize and exhibit works of art. art and extraordinary sciences.

One of the things that fascinated Edington and Lee about this particular mini-brain was its surprisingly organized structure, which emerged in about two weeks. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of organoid growth in the lab is that by simply changing the chemical composition and physical consistency of the hydrogel on which the stem cells are placed, it is possible to influence the ways to differentiate and assemble them. This allows researchers to tinker and refine the characteristics of the gel to encourage cells to take different forms. It also reveals an essential component of complex organ development – the cell environment really matters.

In the experiment captured in this image, researchers randomly seeded thousands of neural stem cells from human embryonic stem cell lines into a dime-sized well on a standard laboratory plate. These cells split and differentiated into hundreds of thousands of cells to form the organoid mini-brain shown above. By studying these mini-brains in the lab, researchers can explore the functioning of a "typical" organoid and learn what's wrong with organoids generated by induced pluripotent stem cells derived from people with the disease. 39, Alzheimer's or other brain diseases.

Griffith's lab does not stop with the brain. In fact, this mini-brain is part of a much larger project, funded by NIH and Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency, to produce many types of "mini-organs" – representing the liver, the intestine , lung, heart and more. The goal is to connect the different organoids together to form a "human on a chip". This integrated approach is important because organs do not act alone in health or disease.

Alzheimer's disease is a good example. Although it's mainly a brain disease, it has become increasingly evident that the intestines and the liver also play a role. The "human-on-a-chip" platform will investigate such complex interactions in Alzheimer's disease and many other conditions in the laboratory, with the ultimate goal of accelerating the development of safe new therapies. and effective.


Griffith Lab (MIT, Cambridge, MA)

Human Physiome on a Chip (MIT)

Image Award of the Koch Institute (MIT)

Meet the Chip (National Center for the Advancement of Translational Sciences / NIH)

NIH Support: National Center for the Advancement of Translation Sciences


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