Starting Out on the Long Road to Tissue Engineering for the Brain

Can one replace parts of the brain? In principle, yes. It is a tissue, and tissue engineering is a field intent on regrowth and replacement of lost or damaged tissue. There are parts of the brain immediately vital to life, and parts that hold the memory that defines the self; if those are lost, that is irrecoverable. But much of the brain might be tissue engineered in the same way as muscle or liver might be replaced. Researchers are still in the early stages of the long road towards replacement tissues created to order, as illustrated by the scientific work noted here, but much of the brain will be a part of that field of development.

The transplantation of pluripotent stem cell-derived neural precursors into the cortex is an exciting potential approach to repair the brain. To achieve this goal, grafted cells must re-establish damaged neural circuits that participate in the restoration of lost behavioral function. Significant progress has been made in demonstrating the feasibility of transplanting precursor cells to replace neurons in the cortex. Graft-derived neurons can survive for years in mice and differentiate into appropriate neuronal subtypes that exhibit normal electrophysiological activity, project long distances outside of the graft to appropriate targets, synaptically integrate with surrounding host neurons, and respond to sensory input and participate in motor output.

Despite these significant discoveries, it is unclear whether grafted neurons in the neocortex can encode useful behavior as a result of their electrophysiological activity. Reported behavioral benefits are instead a result of activity-independent functions such as the secretion of anti-inflammatory or neurotrophic factors. The inability to demonstrate that electrophysiological activity of grafted neurons encode useful behavior is not surprising considering there are cortical cell types that are thus far missing in grafts, in addition to these grafts lacking normal cortical cytoarchitecture. While cerebral organoids display a subset of similar characteristics to a normal fetal cortex, their differentiation has thus far been abnormal after transplantation. Therefore, there is currently no method of generating facsimiles of neocortical tissue in adults, whether for the purpose of study or therapy.

The goal of this study is to provide an initial proof of concept for a neocortical grafting platform that supports (1) the survival and differentiation of the major neocortical cell types, (2) vascularization, (3) neuronal integration, and (4) layering. Toward this goal, we tested whether grafting cells in a three-dimensional scaffold could sustain the differentiation of all the major cortical cell types, vascularization, and a layered cytoarchitecture. Using dissociated mouse cortical fetal cells mixed with a commercial scaffold, we found that the neuronal, glial, and vascular components within the graft survived and successfully integrated with the host tissue. Our results suggest that this platform is suitable for future optimization and testing of structured, vascularized, multi-cell type neocortical tissue prototypes.