Could Lab-Grown Mini Brains Support an Alzheimer’s Treatment?

At this time, nothing would be more thrilling than discovering an Alzheimer’s cure — which is exactly what each new small discovery is working towards. Considering nearly 44 million people across the globe currently suffer from Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, any significant progress could be life-changing for these individuals and their families.

Although lab tests are typically conducted on mice rather than humans, based on the methods and models used, there is a new ‘subject’ that’s recently hit headlines. By conducting research on ‘miniature human brains’ that are made from human skin cells, this could be the ticket towards a potential cure.

Tiny Organs Grown in a Laboratory Could Potentially Provide Dementia-related Clues

By ‘growing’ miniature brains from human skin cells, scientists could more precisely see how dementia spreads across brain tissue. Being grown in a laboratory, researchers believe that they will one day be able to grow new brain tissue, with the hope that they’ll replace damaged parts of the brain.

If successful in relation to Alzheimer’s, it wouldn’t reverse memory loss — but it could stop the brain from deteriorating any further and potentially allow new memories to form.

Sounding futuristic in nature, this current process involves the transformation of skin cells, genetically altering them into stem cells, which are capable of becoming any type of cell. In this case, these engineered cells are then triggered to grow into neurons in order to observe the development of brain disorders.

It’s important to note that this research is within its early stages. With that being said, by growing these miniature brains, researchers could potentially test new treatments, speeding up the development of dementia drugs. At this time, these structures are only around 2 mm, but this is still significant enough to potentially observe how dementia affects brain cells and how this condition spreads.

To help you better understand this process, here is a brief summary:

  • Human skin cells are placed into a dish, along with four genes, reverting them to stem cells.
  • As these stem cells grow in the dish for 60 days, they are then able to transform into any human cell. Using a special solution, two sphere-like cells develop that are approximately one-sixteenth of an inch across.
  • Generating brain organoids, three-dimensional tissues are the result, resembling both the organization and structure of a developing human brain.

This process has been published in numerous journals this past year, with researchers focusing on a wide range of neurodeveopmental disorders, including schizophrenia and autism.

The Evolution of Research — An Encouraging Direction

You may be thinking, the ability to truly ‘grow’ and utilize brain tissue is not likely going to happen anytime soon — but it may not be as futuristic as you currently believe.

In terms of Alzheimer’s research, of course, this process is much more complex than simply growing brain tissue to replace damaged areas of the brain. Since this grown tissue resembles a developing brain, the researchers would first need to study the grown tissue in terms of aging. Only then would they be able to accurately predict its involvement regarding degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

With that being said, within just two years, the level of understanding among global researchers has certainly progressed. It was only in 2015 when the first almost fully-formed human brain was grown at Ohio State University. This accomplishment had evolved from a previous attempt, which only contained certain aspects of the brain.

The Ohio State University team grew the entire brain, producing 99% of the brain’s diverse genes and cell types. Based on this research, it took approximately 12 weeks to create a brain that resembled that of a five-week old fetus. As originally discussed by one of the lead authors, in order to progress, an artificial heart would be required. This would provide a network of blood vessels to help the brain further grow and develop.

Now, fast forward to the summer of 2017, where Australian researchers created 3D printed brain tissue to create GABA- and serotonin-producing nerve cells. Targeting conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s, they hope to one day print neurons that produce dopamine, grafting that tissue into the brain of Parkinson’s patients.

Again, ‘printing’ or ‘growing’ a whole brain would be far more complex, however, this is the direction that researchers are heading towards. At this time, the tissue being developed will be used for such tasks, as to screen for effective drugs or to test the benefits of electrical stimulation treatment.

How to Protect Your Current Brain Tissue

This research is highly interesting and exciting — yet still has a long way to go.

Today, the best possible action you can take is to protect your brain tissue based on your personal lifestyle choices. We all know what we’re supposed to do in order to live a healthy, balanced life, yet far too many of us do not take appropriate action until symptoms of disease surface.

I always say, the best possible treatment for Alzheimer’s, is to take a proactive approach. When you live a healthy lifestyle, protecting your heart and brain, you can significantly reduce your risk of cognitive decline later in life. There have been plenty of studies highlighting the importance of diet, exercise, and even sleep quality.

More specifically, here are the findings from a recent study regarding the benefits of olive oil:

  • Within a recent study, published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology, a mouse model was used to determine the effects of a diet that’s been enriched with extra-virgin olive oil. Focusing on three outcomes, the researchers examined the onset of Alzheimer’s in relation to memory impairment, neurofibrillary tangles, and amyloid plaques.

  • The mice in both groups were biologically engineered to develop Alzheimer’s, with one group consuming a diet that included olive oil once they reached six months of age. This was before any symptoms of Alzheimer’s developed. At months nine and twelve, both groups were examined to assess their learning ability, working and spatial memory.

  • Not only did the olive oil group perform better on all tests, but after examining the brain tissue of all the mice studied, major differences were apparent. Those who consumed olive oil displayed healthier brain cells with greater connectivity; as well as fewer amyloid plaques and tau fibers.

The researchers believe that this effect was due to nerve cell autophagy — a process that both destroys and removes damaging amyloid and tau before it has an opportunity to accumulate in the brain. The only clear explanation was the difference in diet, particularly the consumption of olive oil.

Part of a balanced Mediterranean diet, olive oil, in addition to fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, has been shown to protect both the heart and brain. You know what they say — you are what you eat, and in this case, that statement could not be closer to the truth.

In addition, when you follow a balanced whole food diet, you are also able to maintain a healthy weight and actively eliminate risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes. Of course, there are many contributing factors, such as smoking, stress, and a lack of neurological stimulation, so in that sense, protecting yourself can seem rather complex — but it truly is fairly black and white.

Based on what we know, the best thing you can do is live the ‘definition’ of a healthy lifestyle. I think one of the best phrases you can live by in that sense is — “Always remember that the future comes one day at a time.” It’s never too late to start making positive changes within your day-to-day life.

Small steps and changes in your daily routine, will soon turn into new habits. Start putting your health first — making it a priority. As we continue to cover the latest research here at BrainTest, actively set health-related goals and achieve them.

What are you doing to support your body and mind? Share your tips and tricks with others below!

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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