We know a lot about the human brain, but very little about how it is formed. In particular, the stages from the second to the seventh week of embryonic development have until now been a virtually unknown territory for brain researchers. To learn more about this particular period, researchers from the Department of Neurobiology and the Novo Nordisk Center for Stem Cell Biology have developed a model that mimics these early stages of the human brain in a laboratory. It is reported by the journal Nature.
The model is based on embryonic stem cells grown in a microfluidic system developed in collaboration with bioengineers from Lund University in Sweden.
“We know that in the early embryonic stage, the brain is exposed to various concentrations of growth factors, which cause the formation of different areas of the brain. Using microfluidic methods, we can, under extremely controlled conditions, recreate the medium found in early embryos. When we expose stem cells to a controlled environment, we can create tissue resembling an embryonic brain at a very early stage, about 4-5 weeks after fertilization of the egg – a stage that we still have not been able to study”.
Associate Professor Pedro Rifes
Researchers will use the new model to map the development of brain cells, a kind of “brain tree” of the brain, thus learning new things about how the enormous complexity of various nerve cells in the human brain forms during the early embryonic stages.
The idea is that brain researchers around the world can use this brain development tree as a guide for creating different types of nerve cells for stem cell therapy. By studying the natural development of nerve cells, researchers will be able to speed up the creation of recipes for the production of specific nerve cells in the laboratory.
For example, this will help develop stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease. This project required scientists to produce a very specific type of nerve cell, dopaminergic nerve cells, which are cells that are lost in Parkinson’s disease.
If scientists know how the brain develops in the early stages, they will better direct stem cells in the right direction when they produce human nerve cells in the laboratory. This will allow faster and more efficient development of cellular methods for treating neurological diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and some types of dementia.
The model can also be used to study how brain cells in the early stages of an embryo react to certain chemicals that surround us in our daily lives – they can be substances in our environment, in consumer products, or in drugs that some pregnant women may need.