Brain Organ Chips Offer Novel Approach to Studying Drug and Disease Effects

The toxin-filtering blood-brain barrier's role in maintaining the health of the vital organ was analyzed in a Harvard University research study using advanced technology.

If you were to ask most scientists about whether it's more difficult to unlock the mysteries of the human heart or the human brain, answers would be split: the first serves as our core thinking and functioning platform, while the other holds a wealth of emotions and feelings we experience throughout our lives. Still, in terms of its biological function and makeup, scientists only know a fraction about the brain compared to the heart.

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This means that small discoveries have big ripple effects: the work of a team of scientists at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in a study about the function of nutrient and oxygen-supplying blood vessels in the brain is an example of this type of research. Their research focused on the blood-brain barrier (BBB), which is a large network that filters out undesirable molecules that may enter the brain.

The last line of defense

Astrocyte and pericyte cells play an important supporting role in the BBB, serving as essentially a toxin-filtering last line of defense. Collectively, they are know as the neurovascular unit.

The research team set out to clarify the various ways in which BBB cells work with the brain. To do this, they used novel microfluidically linked Organ Chips: they allowed a glimpse into how the use of drugs like methamphetamines are able to disrupt this natural process of brain function. 

Brain Organ Chips Offer Novel Approach to Studying Drug and Disease Effects
A Side-by-side Comparison of Healthy and Damaged Cells.   Source: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The chips allowed the scientists to not only mimic the effects of certain drugs on the brain, but more importantly observe brain functionality in a new way which "unlike today’s research on Organ Chips [which] is focused on trying to pack more cell types onto each chip to approximate the complexity of whole organs, ...[allowed the research team to do] the opposite and divide one organ onto multiple chips,” shared first author Ben Maoz, Ph.D., a former Technology Development Fellow at the Wyss Institute and current Assistant Professor at Tel Aviv University, Israel.

Blood vessels and the brain

Their work in looking at the bare essential of the NVU and BBB interaction in their research revealed a clear message: blood vessel health is directly linked to how the brain functions.

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Kit Parker, Ph.D., a Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), was equally enthusiastic in citing the significance of the research study:

“The big breakthrough here is that not only have we created a new model for studying the effects of drugs on the human brain, along the way we teased out the communication networks between cells in a way that never could have been done with traditional brain research techniques,” she said, adding, “We are seeing here an unanticipated level of complexity that raises the bar in terms of what it will mean to successfully map the brain’s connectome.” 

Their research was published in journal Nature Biotechnology in an article titled "A linked organ-on-chip model of the human neurovascular unit reveals the metabolic coupling of endothelial and neuronal cells."

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Via: Harvard University

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