In a new article published in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, Korean researchers suggest that diseases of the central nervous system (CNS) might be better studied using compact, accessible chip technology than in current methods. The report, titled “Central Nervous System and its Disease Models on a Chip,“ appeared on Oct. 20, 2015.
The study of multiple sclerosis (MS) may advance via use of microchip systems because these platforms could serve as mini-brains, complete with neurons, supporting cells known as glia, and connected neuronal circuitry. Unlike a traditional “cell culture,” scientists can arrange cells on chips in an organized fashion, instead of simply growing them in a dish.
Chip “systems have been rapidly progressing over the past decade, enabling the development of unique microplatforms for in vitro human central nervous system (CNS) and related disease models,” the researchers note. Such platforms might, for example, help scientists to understand myelin loss and how to prevent it.
In MS, neurons lose myelin, the fatty substance that wraps around nerve connectors (axons) and helps promote communication within the nervous system. When myelin deteriorates, individuals may experience symptoms such as movement loss, vision problems, coordination loss and sensory problems.
The article’s lead author YoonYoung Yi and colleagues also note that methods for studying the nervous system using microchips have already been established: “Most fundamental techniques include manipulation of axons, synapses, and neuronal networks, and different culture conditions are possible, such as compartmental, co-culturing, and 3D. Various CNS disease models, such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), Parkinson’s disease (PD), multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) encephalitis, migraine, diffuse axonal injury, and neuronal migration disorders, have been successfully established on microplatforms.”
The chips might be used to study fundamental processes that are disrupted in neurological diseases like MS. Previously, microchips have been used specifically to study the behavior of microglia, cells that may play a role in MS inflammation. A system in which both neurons and microglia were grown together on a chip demonstrated the possible role of these cells in clearing out debris caused by axon damage — allowing new axon growth. This might be a model for how microglia acts in the human nervous system and help researchers devise ways to promote axon regeneration following damage.
Chips could also be used to screen and test drugs. According to the authors, the “application of these methods to pathological studies, drug screening, and personalized medicine, with 3D and personalized disease models (…) could generate more realistic CNS disease models.” Chip technology may even be extended to other, more general, uses. According to the team, “We further anticipate extension of their applications to the screening of drugs, food, cosmetics, and other toxic materials, the discovery of disease mechanisms, and the diagnosis and treatment of disease.”
Use of human cells on microchips thus may provide a more realistic model, in some instances, than animal cells or cells grown in a dish (in vitro). Chips may be used to assess the safety and effectiveness of new compounds, providing a new method for studying disease treatments, including for MS.