To understand how neuron connections are formed in the human brain, Australian researchers, led by Vini Gautam from the Eccles Institute of Neuroscience, are growing brain cells on computer chips.
Using a nanowire scaffold on a semiconductor chip, the team created an environment which allowed them to monitor and observe how the cells grow and connect, guide their growth, as well as allow them to make natural connections, which they detailed in a study published in Nano Letters this April.
Historically, a major challenge for scientists trying to recreate neural circuitry has been a lack of order- in the brain; neurons connect in a very ordered way- something that lab grown efforts lack. However, using a scaffold made of indium phosphide, Gautam and her colleagues found that they were able to impart some order on the usually chaotic process.
indium phosphide is commonly used in high power and high-frequency electronics, but Gautam believes this is the first time it has been used in conjunction with brain cells.
Starting with a square lattice, the researchers placed around 50 neuronal cells on each scaffold, placed them in a culturing solution, and hoped for the best.
A few days later, outgrowths called neurites formed.
In the brain, these structures connect with other neurons to form synapses. On the scaffold, the neurites had similarity reached out and connected the cells through synaptic connections.
Gautam, who has spent her fair share of time observing neuronal cells, was immediately struck by the fact that the neurites had aligned themselves with the grid in straight lines- something previously unseen.
While growing a brain on a chip is still a long ways off, the fact that researchers were able to guide the neurite growth while allowing the cells to connect naturally will be great tool for those studying the biology of the brain, and one that the researchers hope will lead to developments in cranial prosthetics- one capable of restoring neural damage from injury or disease.