Scientists have grown brain cells on a chip - and it could help treat Alzheimer's

Researchers have grown brain cells on a tiny semiconductor wafer that could be used to make artificial brain parts.

Scientists have created a “brain on a chip” which they say could one day help patients recover from degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) grew brain cells from rat pups on a tiny semiconductor wafer. They say this technology could be used to create neuro prosthetics – artificial brain parts – by substituting or repairing damaged brain tissue.

Lead researcher Dr Vini Gautam said: “The project will provide new insights into the development of neuro-prosthetics which can help the brain recover after damage due to an accident, stroke or degenerative neurological diseases.”

The chip is designed in a specific pattern to facilitate the growth of brain cells where nanowires “act as a scaffold”.

Research on brain cells.
Lead researcher Dr Vini Gautam (ANU)

The scientists noted the neurons grown in the chip were functional and able to make predictive connections.

Project group leader Dr Vincent Daria said: “We were able to make predictive connections between the neurons and demonstrated them to be functional with neurons firing synchronously.”

Neurological disorders are caused by structural, biochemical or electrical abnormalities in the brain, spinal cord or other nerves.

Often in these cases, cells in the damaged areas are unable to communicate with each other effectively and form neural pathways that are used to store and process information.

Research on brain cells.
The semiconductor chip contains nanowires which act a guide for the growth of brain cells (ANU)

The scientists say their study is the first to show “functional and highly interconnected” brain circuits grown artificially on nanowires.

They believe the next stage in the process will be to understand how exactly neurons in the brain form circuits and process information.

However, Dr Daria notes that creating prosthetics for the brain is far more complicated than making artificial limbs.

He said: “Unlike other prosthetics like an artificial limb, neurons need to connect synaptically, which form the basis of information processing in the brain during sensory input, cognition, learning and memory.

Research on brain cells.
The researchers demonstrated the neurons grown in the chip were functional with neurons firing synchronously (ANU)

“Using a particular nanowire geometry, we have shown that the neurons are highly interconnected and predictably form functional circuits.”

Dr Daria adds it is important to create the appropriate environment where neurons can be used to artificially create functional circuits.

He said: “This work could open up a new research model that builds up a stronger connection between materials nanotechnology with neuroscience.”

The study is published in Nano Letters.

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