Israeli Scientist Develops ‘Brain on a Chip’ Allowing for Groundbreaking Research

The Tel Aviv University researcher says the chip system will obviate the need for many types of experiments on animals or human beings

Parts of mouse brain and nerves sit in sample dishes as a scientist conducts experiments at the laboratories in London, U.K.,September 1, 2016.
Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

An Israeli researcher has succeeded in building a “brain on a chip,” which he says will allow research on the human brain at levels of detail and precision that were not previously possible.

An article describing the development by Dr. Ben Meir Maoz of Tel Aviv University’s biomedical engineering department and Sagol School of Neuroscience, in conjunction with the Wyss Institute at Harvard and the Swedish KTH Institute, was published this week in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Organs on chips have been around for more than a decade and have led to various scientific breakthroughs, Maoz explains. But what’s special about this development is its ability to take a complex system like the brain, break it down into subunits, and still preserve the links between these subunits as if they were one unit. “That’s how we can uncover processes and links that we cannot uncover in the whole unit,” he said.

According to the scientist, this new development offers “a thousand and one new options for research.” Among other things, his chip system will obviate the need for many types of experiments on animals or human beings, and will also make the experiments more accurate. “Sixty percent of the drugs that are successful in animals fail in human beings,” notes Maoz, adding that his system will allow researchers to test their drugs on a “human brain” in a more precise fashion.

Similarly, the phenomenon of neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s disease) is almost non-existent in other animals, making it very difficult to use animals as models for humans in this area, while for ethical reasons these diseases cannot be studied on live human subjects. This system will make it possible to conduct experiments on a real human model that isn’t actually human.

The new system focuses on the brain and its connection to the blood vessels that supply it with oxygen, nutrients and chemicals. Because of the brain tissue’s sensitivity, at the junction between it and the blood vessels there is tissue called the “blood-brain barrier,” which regulates the substances going from the bloodstream into the brain and vice versa. Dr. Maoz explains that it is very difficult to understand the interaction between the blood vessels and nerve cells at the cellular level, since researchers cannot work with a living human brain, and cultured cells do not reflect how this interaction is generated.

Maoz’s solution is a chip organ created by growing human tissue from donated tissue and stem cells converted into organ cells so that the activity of the organ can be simulated in a controlled manner and the different parts of the brain’s blood vessels and nerve cells can be connected. Over the past four years, Maoz built a live system that simulates the interactions of the human brain; brain-chip tissue that is connected to two blood vessel and nerve cell tissue chips that resemble the blood-brain barrier.

The system is still its infancy, but he says that it has already yielded discoveries about brain function. One revelations is that the blood vessels in the brain are not just blood-delivery pipelines, “But they release chemicals and nutrients that help the brain work better,” he says. A second experiment on the brain chip examined the way the drug methamphetamine (known as crystal meth) works and yielded insights on how the drug works on the thinking of those who use it.

The next stage, Maoz says, is to build additional human chip organs, like the liver or the immune system, and connect them to the brain system to build a complete model of the human body on chips. This model could replace animals in the laboratory and give researchers unprecedented views of the influence of various chemicals on the human brain and the biological development of various diseases unique to humans. Maoz is convinced that this is an eminently possible goal, “after we’ve proven that it’s possible to do it with the most complex organ of all – the brain.”