A team of researchers at Purdue University won a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to advance the development of a synthetic neuron platform to support future studies into brain health and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
Diseases like Parkinson’s progressively damage and kill nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. Although treatments may help ease disease-related symptoms, a way to effectively slow neurodegeneration has yet to be determined.
For almost a century, the scientific community believed the brain could not replace dead neurons. While evidence now indicates that may be possible within several brain structures — including, but not limited to, the amygdala, hippocampus, and cortex — for the most part, the brain cannot replenish dead nerve cells.
“When the neuron dies or becomes impaired like that, the brain has to get rid of the damaged neurons, and once they’re gone, they’re just gone,” Chongli Yuan, PhD, a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue and team leader of the project, said in a press release. “That’s why there’s no effective treatment for neurotrauma diseases.”
Yuan’s team is working on developing synthetic neuronal cells that could potentially be used to study the brain’s complex inner workings without depending so much on animal or human-derived models. The goal is to address dead or damaged neurons in a disease scenario.
“If we can replace part of those neurons, then we can have infinite possibilities in disease treatment in the future,” Yuan said, noting that “creating a synthetic neuron could essentially be the solution for anything that requires the replacement of neurons in the brain or the nervous system.”
Yuan’s four-year project proposal won her group the $4 million award from the National Science Foundation’s 10 Big Ideas Challenge, which funds pioneering research and pilot activities to support emerging opportunities that serve the nation’s future.
The team has already received part of the awarded funding. The work will be developed in collaboration with researchers at the University of Michigan, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Baylor University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The researchers will first divide neurons into essential building blocks, and create each building block by integrating several inanimate materials, such as proteins and lipids. The blocks will then be assembled into functional sub-units capable of performing part of a neuron’s or neuronal network’s functions.
“This project is about using a bottom-up approach to make a synthetic neuron,” Yuan said. “We will take all the information that biologists and neuroscientists have generated in terms of understanding how the brain works and how the neuron works, and we’ll use an engineering approach to construct it.”
When researchers have a minimal neuron with all its essential functions, they will move into neuronal processing information and aim to synthetically recreate neurons’ ability to communicate with each other. If successful, the researchers will have a working binary response — positive and negative signals — that is essential for information processing.
The work could be the start of a neuron-based platform that allows scientists to study the functioning of the brain and add components as they go.
“We think the work is going to be challenging, because whenever you try to mimic something that nature has made, nature has millions of years to do its very best job. We only have four years,” Yuan said.