Organoids to rebuild the brain

Computer-augmented brains, cures to blindness, and rebuilding the brain after injury all sound like science fiction. In recent years, these advances are closer to reality than some might realize, and they have the ability to revolutionize neurological care.

Microscopic view of a brain organoid.
A brain organoid derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells that displays nuclei of cells (blue) and layers of cerebral cortex (red and green). (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Neurologic disease is now the world’s leading cause of disability, and upwards of 11 million people have some form of permanent neurological problem from traumatic brain injuries and stroke.

Thanks to recent advances, sometimes lasting neurologic disease can be prevented. If a stroke patient is seen quickly enough, life-threatening or -altering damage can be avoided, but it’s not always possible. Current treatments to most neurologic disease are fairly limited, as most therapies, including medications, aim to improve symptoms but can’t completely recover lost brain function.

H. Isaac Chen, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine and a neurosurgeon at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is working to address this challenge. Chen calls the effort to improve how people function neurologically—instead of addressing disease symptoms—“the holy grail of clinical neuroscience.”

“This quest drives my entire academic career—being able to treat patients who don’t really have other options right now by repairing the brain,” Chen says. “While there are efforts to try to prevent disease and damage, there will always be patients who end up with permanent neurological problems.”

Chen suspects that implanting neural tissue like a brain organoid could rebuild brain circuitry. His research is focused on the cerebral cortex—the part of the human brain that sets us apart from other animals. The cerebral cortex supports basic functions such as movement, visual sensation, and higher-order cognitive processes, like working memory and the ability to plan.

This story is part one of a series, Science Fiction Meets Neuro-Reality. Read more at Penn Medicine News.