What would be the first thing you’d do with an artificial brain? If you’re a researcher at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the answer is simple: You dose it with meth.
Okay, so that may be sensationalizing some serious work, but it accurately describes research recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology. And it’s helped reveal details about the brain never known before.
“One of the more complex parts of the brain’s structure is the vasculature that brings blood with nutrients and oxygen into the brain and takes waste products away,” Kit Parker, professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics, told Digital Trends. “The blood vessels are selectively permeable as a means of protecting the brain. The adverse effect is the difficulty with which you can get drugs into the brain through that same protective barrier. To mimic this, we built a model of the blood vessels (BBB) in the brain on two chips, and built a piece of brain on another chip. We daisy-chained the chips so that one BBB chip represented nutrients going to the brain chip, and the second BBB chip took waste products away from the brain chip.”
The meth came into play because they needed a way to test that the BBB chip was working. To prove it, they had to show that it would mimic the real neurological effects caused by the drug. “Just like in the brains of people who choose to smoke meth, the BBB chips started to leak,” Parker continued. “That’s exactly what happens when you smoke meth — and why you shouldn’t.”
Once the researchers had proven their creation worked, they used it to examine the ways that the cells on the BBB chips and brain chips communicate. This helped reveal previously unknown details about what Parker describes as a “dark web” of communication scientists haven’t previously known about. In the future, this might reveal new targets for medicinal therapeutics.
“The novelty relating to organ chips is that they enable us to carry out what is essentially a ‘synthetic biology’ approach at the cell, tissue, and organ level,” Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute, told DT. “They also provide a window on molecular-scale activities inside human living cells within a physiologically relevant tissue and organ context. In this study, we could use this synthetic approach to break down a complex organ – in this case, the human brain – into individual sub-compartments of the brain microvasculature and normally tightly intertwined neuronal networks. Because we can separate out each compartment and control ‘ins and outs,’ while analyzing them with state-of-the-art analytical technologies, we were able to gain insights into how cells within these different compartments communicate with each other.”