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MQ-funded researchers create 3D brain circuits ‘in a dish’, providing a pioneering new way to understand the brain and mental illness

For the first time, scientists have assembled ‘in a dish’ functioning 3D brain circuits that develop and interact in a similar way as they do in humans. This MQ-funded work opens doors to our understanding around the development of the human brain and how neurological and mental health conditions begin.

To create the brain circuits, Sergiu Pasca and his team at Stanford took human skin cells from volunteers, transformed these into stem cells, and then nurtured the cells to grow into tissue resembling different areas of the brain.

In previous studies we’ve only been able to study single layers of the brain in petri dishes, limiting the amount we can learn from how the brain interacts. But now, Sergui’s ground-breaking work, which has been published in leading scientific journal Nature, has enabled us to study cells forming connections we’ve never been able to see in a lab before and grow into fully-fledge functioning circuits – just like ones that are in the brain of a developing human foetus.   

This provides us with essential detail into the early stages of brain development, and allows scientists to begin to answer fundamental questions about the formation of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain responsible for our most advanced functions.

Taking this a step further, Sergui used this method to see how Timothy Syndrome, a condition that’s strongly associated with epilepsy and autism manifests in the brain. 

They created a brain circuit using skin cells from someone with the condition and were able to identify one type of brain cell, GABAergic interneurons, migrates differently to those of people who don’t have the condition.

This is strong evidence that we could use Sergui’s model to study the development of other conditions associated with the brain, including mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bettering our understanding and informing treatments. 

Furthermore, the method introduced by Sergiu’s group provides the opportunity to generate circuits of other brain regions to study how different parts of of the brain communicate in the context of disease, and to ultimately test drugs to reverse abnormalities.

Commenting on the paper, Dr Sophie Dix, Research Director of MQ said: 

“Sergiu Pasca’s research is an important step forward in understanding how the brain develops. Previous methods only allowed us to look at isolated parts of a system – like looking at a phone and trying to understand global communications. 

The brain has long remained one of the hardest organs to study, but Sergiu Pasca’s model gives us an exciting new insight into how different parts of the brain communicate with each other. Critically, Pasca and his team have shown that their model can be used to understand the early-development of brain-related conditions, opening doors to much-needed advances in our understanding of mental illness – and the potential for more targeted therapies in the future.”

Pasca is one of our Fellows and received funding for work in his lab from a range of organisations including MQ and the National Institute of Health in the US.

Last updated: 28 April 2017

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