Tag Archives: University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)

Cortical spheroids (like mini-brains) could unlock (larger) brain’s mysteries

A March 19, 2021 Northwestern University news release on EurekAlert announces the creation of a device designed to monitor brain organoids (for anyone unfamiliar with brain organoids there’s more information after the news),

A team of scientists, led by researchers at Northwestern University, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), has developed novel technology promising to increase understanding of how brains develop, and offer answers on repairing brains in the wake of neurotrauma and neurodegenerative diseases.

Their research is the first to combine the most sophisticated 3-D bioelectronic systems with highly advanced 3-D human neural cultures. The goal is to enable precise studies of how human brain circuits develop and repair themselves in vitro. The study is the cover story for the March 19 [March 17, 2021 according to the citation] issue of Science Advances.

The cortical spheroids used in the study, akin to “mini-brains,” were derived from human-induced pluripotent stem cells. Leveraging a 3-D neural interface system that the team developed, scientists were able to create a “mini laboratory in a dish” specifically tailored to study the mini-brains and collect different types of data simultaneously. Scientists incorporated electrodes to record electrical activity. They added tiny heating elements to either keep the brain cultures warm or, in some cases, intentionally overheated the cultures to stress them. They also incorporated tiny probes — such as oxygen sensors and small LED lights — to perform optogenetic experiments. For instance, they introduced genes into the cells that allowed them to control the neural activity using different-colored light pulses.

This platform then enabled scientists to perform complex studies of human tissue without directly involving humans or performing invasive testing. In theory, any person could donate a limited number of their cells (e.g., blood sample, skin biopsy). Scientists can then reprogram these cells to produce a tiny brain spheroid that shares the person’s genetic identity. The authors believe that, by combining this technology with a personalized medicine approach using human stem cell-derived brain cultures, they will be able to glean insights faster and generate better, novel interventions.

“The advances spurred by this research will offer a new frontier in the way we study and understand the brain,” said Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s Dr. Colin Franz, co-lead author on the paper who led the testing of the cortical spheroids. “Now that the 3-D platform has been developed and validated, we will be able to perform more targeted studies on our patients recovering from neurological injury or battling a neurodegenerative disease.”

Yoonseok Park, postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University and co-lead author, added, “This is just the beginning of an entirely new class of miniaturized, 3-D bioelectronic systems that we can construct to expand the capacity of the regenerative medicine field. For example, our next generation of device will support the formation of even more complex neural circuits from brain to muscle, and increasingly dynamic tissues like a beating heart.”

Current electrode arrays for tissue cultures are 2-D, flat and unable to match the complex structural designs found throughout nature, such as those found in the human brain. Moreover, even when a system is 3-D, it is extremely challenging to incorporate more than one type of material into a small 3-D structure. With this advance, however, an entire class of 3-D bioelectronics devices has been tailored for the field of regenerative medicine.

“Now, with our small, soft 3-D electronics, the capacity to build devices that mimic the complex biological shapes found in the human body is finally possible, providing a much more holistic understanding of a culture,” said Northwestern’s John Rogers, who led the technology development using technology similar to that found in phones and computers. “We no longer have to compromise function to achieve the optimal form for interfacing with our biology.”

As a next step, scientists will use the devices to better understand neurological disease, test drugs and therapies that have clinical potential, and compare different patient-derived cell models. This understanding will then enable a better grasp of individual differences that may account for the wide variation of outcomes seen in neurological rehabilitation.

“As scientists, our goal is to make laboratory research as clinically relevant as possible,” said Kristen Cotton, research assistant in Dr. Franz’s lab. “This 3-D platform opens the door to new experiments, discovery and scientific advances in regenerative neurorehabilitation medicine that have never been possible.”

Caption: Three dimensional multifunctional neural interfaces for cortical spheroids and engineered assembloids Credit: Northwestern University

As for what brain ogranoids might be, Carl Zimmer in an Aug. 29, 2019 article for the New York Times provides an explanation,

Organoids Are Not Brains. How Are They Making Brain Waves?

Two hundred and fifty miles over Alysson Muotri’s head, a thousand tiny spheres of brain cells were sailing through space.

The clusters, called brain organoids, had been grown a few weeks earlier in the biologist’s lab here at the University of California, San Diego. He and his colleagues altered human skin cells into stem cells, then coaxed them to develop as brain cells do in an embryo.

The organoids grew into balls about the size of a pinhead, each containing hundreds of thousands of cells in a variety of types, each type producing the same chemicals and electrical signals as those cells do in our own brains.

In July, NASA packed the organoids aboard a rocket and sent them to the International Space Station to see how they develop in zero gravity.

Now the organoids were stowed inside a metal box, fed by bags of nutritious broth. “I think they are replicating like crazy at this stage, and so we’re going to have bigger organoids,” Dr. Muotri said in a recent interview in his office overlooking the Pacific.

What, exactly, are they growing into? That’s a question that has scientists and philosophers alike scratching their heads.

On Thursday, Dr. Muotri and his colleagues reported that they  have recorded simple brain waves in these organoids. In mature human brains, such waves are produced by widespread networks of neurons firing in synchrony. Particular wave patterns are linked to particular forms of brain activity, like retrieving memories and dreaming.

As the organoids mature, the researchers also found, the waves change in ways that resemble the changes in the developing brains of premature babies.

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Giorgia Quadrato, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California who was not involved in the new study. “No one really knew if that was possible.”

But Dr. Quadrato stressed it was important not to read too much into the parallels. What she, Dr. Muotri and other brain organoid experts build are clusters of replicating brain cells, not actual brains.

If you have the time, I recommend reading Zimmer’s article in its entirety. Perhaps not coincidentally, Zimmer has an excerpt titled “Lab-Grown Brain Organoids Aren’t Alive. But They’re Not Not Alive, Either.” published in Slate.com,

From Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means To Be Alive by Carl Zimmer, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Carl Zimmer.

Cleber Trujillo led me to a windowless room banked with refrigerators, incubators, and microscopes. He extended his blue-gloved hands to either side and nearly touched the walls. “This is where we spend half our day,” he said.

In that room Trujillo and a team of graduate students raised a special kind of life. He opened an incubator and picked out a clear plastic box. Raising it above his head, he had me look up at it through its base. Inside the box were six circular wells, each the width of a cookie and filled with what looked like watered-down grape juice. In each well 100 pale globes floated, each the size of a housefly head.

Getting back to the research about monitoring brain organoids, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper about cortical spheroids,

Three-dimensional, multifunctional neural interfaces for cortical spheroids and engineered assembloids by Yoonseok Park, Colin K. Franz, Hanjun Ryu, Haiwen Luan, Kristen Y. Cotton, Jong Uk Kim, Ted S. Chung, Shiwei Zhao, Abraham Vazquez-Guardado, Da Som Yang, Kan Li, Raudel Avila, Jack K. Phillips, Maria J. Quezada, Hokyung Jang, Sung Soo Kwak, Sang Min Won, Kyeongha Kwon, Hyoyoung Jeong, Amay J. Bandodkar, Mengdi Han, Hangbo Zhao, Gabrielle R. Osher, Heling Wang, KunHyuck Lee, Yihui Zhang, Yonggang Huang, John D. Finan and John A. Rogers. Science Advances 17 Mar 2021: Vol. 7, no. 12, eabf9153 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf9153

This paper appears to be open access.

According to a March 22, 2021 posting on the Shirley Riley AbilityLab website, the paper is featured on the front cover of Science Advances (vol. 7 no. 12).

Alloy nanoparticles make better catalysts

A Jan. 4, 2021 news item on Nanowerk describes new insights into nanoscale catalysts derived from work at the US Argonne National Laboratory,

Catalysts are integral to countless aspects of modern society. By speeding up important chemical reactions, catalysts support industrial manufacturing and reduce harmful emissions. They also increase efficiency in chemical processes for applications ranging from batteries and transportation to beer and laundry detergent.

As significant as catalysts are, the way they work is often a mystery to scientists. Understanding catalytic processes can help scientists develop more efficient and cost-effective catalysts. In a recent study, scientists from University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory discovered that, during a chemical reaction that often quickly degrades catalytic materials, a certain type of catalyst displays exceptionally high stability and durability.

The catalysts in this study are alloy nanoparticles, or nanosized particles made up of multiple metallic elements, such as cobalt, nickel, copper and platinum. These nanoparticles could have multiple practical applications, including water-splitting to generate hydrogen in fuel cells; reduction of carbon dioxide by capturing and converting it into useful materials like methanol; more efficient reactions in biosensors to detect substances in the body; and solar cells that produce heat, electricity and fuel more effectively.

A January 4, 2021 Argonne National Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert) by Savannah Mitchem fills in some details,

In this study, the scientists investigated “high-entropy” (highly stable) alloy nanoparticles. The team of researchers, led by Reza Shahbazian-Yassar at UIC, used Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), a DOE Office of Science user facility, to characterize the particles’ compositions during oxidation, a process that degrades the material and reduces its usefulness in catalytic reactions.

“Using gas flow transmission electron microscopy (TEM) at CNM, we can capture the whole oxidation process in real time and at very high resolution,” said scientist Bob Song from UIC, a lead scientist on the study. “We found that the high-entropy alloy nanoparticles are able to resist oxidation much better than general metal particles.”

To perform the TEM, the scientists embedded the nanoparticles into a silicon nitride membrane and flowed different types of gas through a channel over the particles. A beam of electrons probed the reactions between the particles and the gas, revealing the low rate of oxidation and the migration of certain metals — iron, cobalt, nickel and copper — to the particles’ surfaces during the process.

“Our objective was to understand how fast high-entropy materials react with oxygen and how the chemistry of nanoparticles evolves during such a reaction,” said Shahbazian-Yassar, UIC professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the College of Engineering.

According to Shahbazian-Yassar, the discoveries made in this research could benefit many energy storage and conversion technologies, such as fuel cells, lithium-air batteries, supercapacitors and catalyst materials. The nanoparticles could also be used to develop corrosion-resistant and high-temperature materials.

“This was a successful showcase of how CNM’s capabilities and services can meet the needs of our collaborators,” said Argonne’s Yuzi Liu, a scientist at CNM. “We have state-of-the-art facilities, and we want to deliver state-of-the-art science as well.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

In Situ Oxidation Studies of High-Entropy Alloy Nanoparticles by Boao Song, Yong Yang, Muztoba Rabbani, Timothy T. Yang, Kun He, Xiaobing Hu, Yifei Yuan, Pankaj Ghildiyal, Vinayak P. Dravid, Michael R. Zachariah, Wissam A. Saidi, Yuzi Liu, and Reza Shahbazian-Yassar. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 11, 15131–15143 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c05250 Publication Date:October 20, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Below is one of my favourite types of video work, a ‘blob video’ from the University of Illinois showing the alloy nanoparticles as they oxidate,

Video of transmission electron microscopy, performed at Argonne’s CNM, showing the oxidation of high-entropy nanoparticles in air at 400 °C, sped up by a factor of four. The oxidation process is depicted by the dissolution of the edges of the nanoparticles in the video. (Image by University of Illinois.)

Science denial is not limited to the political right

These days, climate is the most likely topic to bring up charges of having anti-science views and/or ‘right wing’ thinking but according to a Sept. 19, 2017 news item on phys.org ‘left wing’ thinkers can also reject science,

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many claims have been made that science denial, particularly as it relates to climate change, is primarily a problem of the political right.

But what happens when scientific conclusions challenge liberals’ attitudes on public policy issues, such as gun control, nuclear power or immigration?

A new study from social psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago [UIC] and published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests people of all political backgrounds can be motivated to participate in science denial.

A Sept. 19, 2017 University of Illinois at Chicago news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further,

UIC researchers Anthony Washburn, a graduate student in psychology, and Linda Skitka, professor of psychology, had participants indicate their political orientation, evaluate fabricated scientific results, and, based on the data, decide what the studies concluded.

Once they were informed of the correct interpretations of the data, participants were then asked to rate how much they agreed with, found knowledgeable, and trusted the researchers’ correct interpretation.

“Not only were both sides equally likely to seek out attitude confirming scientific conclusions, both were also willing to work harder and longer when doing so got them to a conclusion that fit with their existing attitudes,” says Washburn, the lead author of the study. “And when the correct interpretation of the results did not confirm participants’ attitudes, they were more likely to view the researchers involved with the study as less trustworthy, less knowledgeable, and disagreed with their conclusions more.”

These effects were constant no matter what issue was under consideration, which included six social issues — immigration, gun control, climate change, health care reform, nuclear power and same sex marriage — and one control issue — skin rash treatment.

Rather than strictly a conservative phenomenon, science denial may be a result of a more basic desire of people wanting to see the world in ways that fit with their personal preferences, political or otherwise, according to the researchers.

The results also shed light on science denial in public discourse, Skitka added.

“Before assuming that one group of people or another are anti-science because they disagree with one scientific conclusion, we should make an effort to consider different motivations that are likely at play, which might have nothing to do with science per se,” she said.

This research fits into a larger body of work where researchers are examining what we believe and how we use or dismiss science and fact to support our positions. Chris Mooney’s article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” for the May/June 2011 issue of Mother Jones examines the issue although it is strongly weighted with examples of research into intransigent opinion associated with right wing politics (climate change, etc.).

Getting back to more recent work, here’s link to and a citation for the paper,

Science Denial Across the Political Divide; Liberals and Conservatives Are Similarly Motivated to Deny Attitude-Inconsistent Science by Anthony N. Washburn, Linda J. Skitka. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617731500 First Published September 14, 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.