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Scientists 3-D print neural networks which can potentially revolutionize biomedicine – Times of India

Scientists at Monash University have utilized 3D printing technology to create living neural networks composed of rat brain cells. According to Wired, These miniature brains exhibit maturation and communication patterns similar to their full-size counterparts, presenting a promising avenue for revolutionizing drug testing and advancing personalized medicine.
The quest to reduce reliance on animal testing gained momentum with the US Congress urging scientists to minimize the use of animals in federally funded research. The recently enacted US Food and Drug Administration’s Modernization Act 2.0 further opened avenues for high-tech alternatives in drug safety trials. 3D-printed mini-brains hold potential as a viable substitute for traditional animal testing, though challenges remain in transitioning from proof of concept to mainstream lab practices.
The field of mini-brain development offers various approaches, including culturing single layers of neurons in petri dishes and coaxing stem cells into 3D organoids. The Monash University team aimed to strike a balance by employing 3D printing technology, allowing for precise cell placement on recording electrodes while maintaining the flexibility for cells to organize themselves in three-dimensional space as per Wired.
Led by Professor John Forsythe, the team detailed their experiment in Advanced Healthcare Materials. The process involved using “bioink”, a gel containing rat brain cells, extruded through a nozzle onto a scaffold in a layer-by-layer fashion. This method facilitated the creation of neural structures resembling the alternating gray and white matter found in the cortex of the brain.
Collaborating with physiologist Helena Parkington, the team included not only neurons but also astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and microglia in the printed brain tissues. As the neurons matured, they extended axons across cell-free layers, enabling communication similar to the cortex’s functioning.
To validate the functionality of these 3D-printed neural networks, a tiny array of microelectrodes recorded electrical activity, while other electrodes stimulated and recorded the neurons’ responses. The team employed a fluorescent dye to visualize calcium ion movement, confirming that the cells engaged in chemical communication as expected.
Ensuring the survival and functionality of printed neurons presented a unique challenge. Unlike standard 3D printing with plastic filaments, the delicate nature of neurons required a gel with properties closely replicating those of the human brain. Earlier attempts often excluded glial cells crucial for maintaining a suitable environment for neurons, impacting the replication of natural electrical activity.
While the experiment used rat cells, the potential for future applications in human cells is promising. However, challenges in scaling up the process persist, with the tissues printed containing only a fraction of the neurons found in the human cortex. The slow pace of 3D printing, even for tiny structures, requires further refinement for widespread use, particularly in pharmaceutical research.
Despite these challenges, the technology holds significant promise in revolutionizing biomedical applications, including drug discovery and studying neurodegenerative diseases. Convincing the scientific community to transition from traditional animal models to engineered tissue may take time, but the potential benefits are substantial.
Researchers envision applications beyond drug testing, speculating on the creation of living artificial neural networks. The intersection of 3D neural networks with artificial intelligence might lead to the development of “organoid intelligence.” While measuring consciousness in lab-grown networks remains a challenge, the potential for harnessing such networks for biological computing is an exciting prospect.
The Monash University team further aims to assess the resilience of printed neural networks under stress, offering insights into the brain’s regenerative capabilities. This research, the scientists believe, could pave the way for personalized treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and brain injuries, with the hope of creating 3D-printing suites in hospitals for tailored medical interventions.

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