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June 8, 2018

Mini-brains advance human brain research

After 21 days in a culture, the mini-brain, originally derived from postnatal rat cortex, contains multiple cells including neurons (blue) and astrocytes (green). Nuclei are labeled in gray. The mini-brain was developed by a bioengineering team at Brown University and can form networks and are electrically active.

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The human brain contains about 86 billion nerve cells, billions of nerve fibers and trillions of connections between them. To probe this complex network, in 2015, National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researchers developed a 3D model of about 8,000 nerve and supporting cells, described as a "mini-brain."

Unable to think but electrically active, the mini-brain offers an inexpensive, easy-to-make model to study nerve cell networks and the impact of drugs on nerve tissue or nerve tissue transplants. The mini-brain costs about a quarter to grow.

In 2017, the researchers discovered that the mini-brains produce networks of capillaries, a critical feature needed to study brain conditions, injuries and diseases such as stroke, concussions and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers can now alter tissue conditions or introduce drugs to observe tissue responses.

[Among the NSF support received for this research was a Graduate Research Fellowship awarded to Molly Boutin, co-lead author of a published paper about this research.]

To learn more about this research, see the Brown University news story An accessible approach to making a mini-brain. (Date image taken: 2016; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: March 7, 2018)

Credit: Hoffman-Kim lab, Brown University

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