The most complex organ in humans is the brain. Due to its complexity and, of course, for ethical reasons, it is extremely difficult to do scientific experiments on it that could help us to understand many neurodegenerative diseases. Scientists at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg have now succeeded in turning human stem cells derived from skin samples into tiny, three-dimensional, brain-like cultures that behave very similarly to cells in the human midbrain.
The human midbrain is of particular interest to researchers working on Parkinson's disease. Nerve cells produce dopamine which is needed to maintain smooth body movements. If the dopaminergic neurons die off, then the person affected develops tremors and muscle rigidity. But due to ethical reasons, the researchers cannot take cells from the midbrain for studying these conditions.
The LCSB scientists worked with so-called induced pluripotent stem cells. A special, precisely defined cocktail of growth factors and a certain treatment method for the stem cells was developed. The pluripotent stem cells in the petri dishes multiplied and spread out into a three-dimensional supporting structure - producing tissue-like cell cultures.
The subsequent examination of these artificial tissue samples revealed that various cell types characteristic of the midbrain had developed. The cells could transmit and process signals, and even dopaminergic cells were detected.
The development of the brain-like tissue cultures not only opens doors to new research approaches but can also help to reduce the amount of animal testing in brain research.