Why we fit a mini brain with a mini cap: Engineering feat expands what researchers can accomplish with organoids

It could be the world’s tiniest EEG electrode cap, created to measure activity in a brain model the size of a pen dot. Its designers expect the device to lead to better understanding of neural disorders and how potentially dangerous chemicals affect the brain.

This engineering feat, led by Johns Hopkins University researchers and detailed today in Science Advances, expands what researchers can accomplish with organoids, including mini brains — the lab-grown balls of human cells that mimic some of a brain’s structure and functionality.

“This provides an important tool to understand the development and workings of the human brain,” said David Gracias, a Johns Hopkins chemical and biomolecular engineer and one of the creators. “Creating micro-instrumentation for mini-organsis a challenge, but this invention is fundamental to new research.”

Since organoids were first created more than a decade ago, researchers have modified stem cells to create small-scale kidneys, lungs, livers, and brains. The complex, miniature models are used to study how the organs develop. Researchers study unaltered organoids next to ones that are genetically modified, injected with viruses, and exposed to chemicals. Organoids, particularly mini brains, are increasingly important in medical research because they can be used in experiments that would otherwise require human or animal testing.

But because the conventional apparatus to test organoids is flat, researchers have been able to examine only limited cells on their surface. Knowing what’s happening to a larger number of cells in the organoid would help understanding of how organs function and diseases progress, Gracias said.

“We want to get information from as many cells as possible in the brain, so we know the state of the cells, how they communicate and their spatiotemporal electrical patterns,” he said.

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