‘Mini human brains’ to help develop treatment for Parkinson’s

Monday, Aug 1, 2016,14:39 IST By Metrovaartha A A A

Singapore | Scientists have grown ‘mini human brains’ in the lab which may help them to develop treatments and conduct studies into Parkinson’s and other ageing-related brain diseases.

Mini mid-brains provide next generation platforms to investigate human brain biology, diseases and therapeutics. These mini mid-brain versions are three-dimensional miniature tissues that are grown in the laboratory and have certain properties of specific parts of the human brains, scientists from Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and Duke-NUS Medical School said. This is the first time that the black pigment neuromelanin has been detected in an organoid model.

The study also showed functionally active dopaminergic neurons. The human mid-brain, which is the information superhighway, controls auditory, eye movements, vision and body movements, scientists said. It contains special dopaminergic neurons that produce dopamine – which carries out significant roles in executive functions, motor control, motivation, reinforcement, and reward, they said.

High levels of dopamine elevate motor activity and impulsive behaviour, whereas low levels of dopamine lead to slowed reactions and disorders like Parkinson’s Disease (PD), which is characterised by stiffness and difficulties in initiating movements. Also causing PD is the dramatic reduction in neuromelanin production, leading to the degenerative condition of patients, which includes tremors and impaired motor skills, scientists said. They now have access to the material that is affected in the disease itself.

Using stem cells, scientists grew pieces of tissue, known as brain organoids, measuring about 2 to 3 millimetres long. These organoids contain the necessary hallmarks of the human midbrain, which are dopaminergic neurons and neuromelanin. These advanced mini versions of the human mid-brain will help researchers develop treatments and conduct other studies into PD and ageing-related brain diseases. It is remarkable that our mid-brain organoids mimic human mid-brain development.

The cells divide, cluster together in layers, and become electrically and chemically active in three-dimensional environment like our brain, said Shawn Je assistant professor at Duke-NUS Medical School. Now we can really test how these mini brains react to existing or newly developed drugs before treating patients, which will be a game changer for drug development, said Je.

The mid-brain organoids display great potential in replacing animals’ brains which are currently used in research; we can now use these mid-brains in culture instead to advance our understanding and future studies for the disease, and perhaps even other related diseases, added Ng Huck Hui, GIS Executive Director.

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