The brain is the black box of the body: full of secrets and often inaccessible. Recently, though, medical and technical advances have enabled scientists to explore a variety of new modeling techniques and allowed them to see the brain as never before.
New brain models may offer insight into the biology of brain cancer, enhance surgical planning, and help us understand better how the brain performs a variety of functions. They are also the first steps toward new interventions and improved quality of life for thousands of people.
One of the best and most advanced approaches for modeling any part of the body is through the use of cellular scaffolding: biocompatible materials that support the growth of organ-specific cells. In fact, such scaffolding-based approaches have allowed scientists to model entire organs in laboratory settings and are the best hope for eventually being able to grow transplantable organs.
With regard to brain tissue, the science is still in its infancy. But by using a silk and collagen scaffold and pluripotent stem cells, scientists have begun to culture clusters of brain tissue successfully in the lab. This includes modeling glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer in adults.
Scaffold-based cellular modeling is the result of complex partnerships across the sciences and engineering disciplines. Clinical biomedical researchers and biological engineers develop biocompatible materials, they partner with neuroscientists and oncologists, and eventually may include a variety of other subspecialists, such as pharmaceutical researchers and immunologists.
For example, one of the most promising treatment modalities for brain cancer right now is CAR-T therapy, which uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells, but requires a comprehensive understanding of both the brain and the immune system.
Seeing In 3D
Not surprisingly, based on the current popularity of 3D printing, scientists have been looking for ways to employ this technology to visualize the brain more fully. Using MRIs and CT scans, 3D printers can create realistic biological models.
Though these models don’t allow for the same degree of biological engagement as cellular models, 3D-printed brains offer the opportunity to model a specific brain, not just general cellular structure. In patients that have tumors or other brain abnormalities, these 3D models can help their doctors visualize and plan surgical strategies better, through the use of a tactile, interactive approach.
3D-printed brain models also pair well with tools such as the Virtual Brain, an approach to simulating brain tumors that uses fMRI. Surgeons can use the Virtual Brain to identify not just the structural makeup of the brain, but also the functions of those areas.
Given greater knowledge of the brain’s function in proximity to a tumor or other surgical target region, surgeons can plan a more appropriate approach to minimize damage and functional loss.
The Brain in Action
Finally, to move beyond our longstanding reliance on fMRI and certain EEG models as the only ways to see the brain performing tasks as well as for isolating functions, scientists recently published a proof-of-concept study using diffusion spectrum imaging to see how brain structure related to language-based tasks.
This approach can identify when brain areas synchronize and which areas are in an active state during tasks. It can also help researchers visualize how the brain coordinates various structures to perform a given task.
Though this research is only in the trial phase, it could help researchers identify differences in how individual brains perform a task, which is of particular interest in the study of abnormal or post-surgical brains.
The brain does not readily respond to modeling because its functions are so complex. Unlike the kidney or liver, in which the entire organ performs a singular task, the brain executes thousands of tasks and regulates dozens of functions simultaneously.
As modeling technology advances, however, the brain may slowly reveal its secrets. It’s an exciting time for the neurological and cognitive sciences.