Researchers at UCLA have developed a method to produce improved brain organoids, or “mini brains,” that they claim mimic the structure of the human brain more closely than previous attempts. The investigators used the organoids to study how the Zika virus infects and destroys brain tissue, and identify potential treatments, but the mini brains could also be useful in studying neurological/neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia.
Brain organoids have been covered by Medgadget previously. However, what sets the new organoids apart is the researchers’ claims that they more closely mimic the structure of the human brain than previous attempts. Like previous attempts to make organoids, the research team started with human pluripotent stem cells, which can create any cell type in the body. However, the researchers used an optimized number of pluripotent stem cells, specialized petri dishes, and a growth factor called LIF to stimulate the cells to develop into brain organoids.
The team’s organoids have a layered structure that resembles the human brain’s onion-like layers. Mimicking the cortex in the human brain, the organoids contain a variety of cell types that are found in this brain region. The cells can communicate with each other electrically, just like neural networks in the human brain.
“While our organoids are in no way close to being fully functional human brains, they mimic the human brain structure much more consistently than other models,” said Momoko Watanabe, a UCLA researcher involved in the study. “Other scientists can use our methods to improve brain research because the data will be more accurate and consistent from experiment to experiment and more comparable to the real human brain.”
The researchers used the organoids to understand how the Zika virus destroys neural stem cells in the tissue, which are crucially important for brain growth during fetal development. By exposing the Zika-infected organoids to several drugs, the team found three that can stop the virus from entering brain tissue, suggesting they might be suitable as treatments.