Investigating neurological disorders in a dish: taking the building blocks into the third dimension

The term cell culture describes the process of obtaining the building blocks of living tissue (cells) and growing these in a laboratory environment. The traditional way of culturing cells is in a Petri dish.  However, there is a distinct disadvantage to this technique as in such a scenario cells are growing on a flat surface in 2D while the cells of the human body occupy a 3D space. In order to gain a better understanding of human development and diseases affecting the human condition it is necessary to adapt current cell culture systems to include the third dimension. By using 3D cell culture techniques the way in which cells are growing will be more like the cells of the living tissue of origin.

Our laboratory has well-established techniques for growing one of the major building blocks of the brain, neurons. In order to advance our understanding of how neurons function we are establishing 3D cell culture systems. A major focus of the work in our laboratory is the use of scaffolds to grow neurons for specific purpose of understanding how neurons interact and communicate in 3D cell culture. We will then be able to extend this to the study of neurons involved in brain disease such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. 

Neurons send and receive electrochemical signals. These signals are positively controlled by neurons that secrete a chemical called glutamate (glutamatergic neurons) and opposed by neurons that secrete a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (GABAergic neurons). Disruption of this core communicative process is the basis of many neurological disorders. In order to investigate how such neurons function in 3D we are making use of a scaffold that can promote such communication: Graphene foam. We are routinely growing both glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons on Graphene foam and are now establishing techniques to investigate neuronal communication with the view of investigating how such communication is disrupted in brain disease. This work will help us bring about much needed improvements on current methods for treating chronic brain diseases such as autism spectrum disorder ad schizophrenia.

Human neurons growing in 3D on graphene

Stem Cells and Disease Models Research Team