In a step closer to creating a full-fledged "bench-top" brain, Australian researchers have developed a 3D-printed layered structure incorporating neural cells that mimics the structure of brain tissue.
A "bench-top" brain that accurately reflects actual brain tissue would be significant for researching not only the effect of drugs but brain disorders like schizophrenia and degenerative brain disease.
"The breakthrough is significant in the quest to create a 'bench-top' brain that will enable important insights into brain function, in addition to providing an experimental test bed for new drugs and electroceuticals," explained professor Gordon Wallace, director of ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) at University of Wollongong in Australia.
We are still a long way from printing a brain but the ability to arrange cells so that they form neuronal networks is a significant step forward, Wallace added.
To create their six-layered structure, researchers developed a custom bio-ink containing naturally occurring carbohydrate materials.
The custom materials have properties that allow accurate cell dispersion throughout the structure, while providing a rare level of protection to the cells.
The bio-ink is then optimised for 3D-printing and developed for use in a standard cell culturing facility without the need for expensive bio-printing equipment.
The result is a layered structure like brain tissue, in which cells are accurately placed and remain in their designated layer.
"This study highlights the importance of integrating advances in 3D printing, with those in materials science, to realise a biological outcome," Wallace noted.
The brain is amazingly complex, with around 86 billion nerve cells.
The challenge for researchers to create bench-top brain tissue from which they can learn about how the brain functions is an extremely difficult one.
Pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars testing therapeutic drugs on animals, only to discover in human trials that the drug has an altogether different level of effectiveness.
"This paves the way for the use of more sophisticated printers to create structures with much finer resolution," the authors noted in a paper appeared in the Biomaterials journal.