Scientists Dosed Artificial Brain With Meth For New Study

By Kelly Burch 08/27/18

Scientists chose to use meth on the brain replica because much is still unknown about the the drug and its effects on the body.

an illustration of brainwaves

It’s no secret that certain drugs are bad for your brain. However, scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering can now tell you exactly how bad meth is for you, after dosing an artificial brain with the drug and watching the results.

To do this, researchers used organ chips, computer chips lined with living human cells that can be used to test how human organs function and react to substances.

In this case, the researchers were focused on the blood-brain barrier (BBB). This filter normally allows some substances to pass into the brain, while keeping other potentially harmful substances out. Using drugs, including meth, can alter the BBB, making it easier for toxins to reach the brain, according to Motherboard

To show this and study exactly how it works, researchers dosed a brain chip mimicking the function of the BBB with meth. 

“Just like in the brains of people who choose to smoke meth, the BBB chips started to leak,” Kit Parker, professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics, told Digital Trends. “That’s exactly what happens when you smoke meth—and why you shouldn’t.” 

Ben Maoz, one of three lead study authors from the Wyss Institute, said that the team chose meth because it is known to be particularly harmful to the brain. 

“Our primary reason for choosing this drug is that it is one of the most addictive drugs responsible for thousands of deaths,” Maoz said to Motherboard via email. “Given this tragic statistic, it is surprising that much is still unknown. Therefore, we sought to use this novel system to unveil the metabolic effect of meth on the different parts of the [neurovascular unit].”

Researchers found that about 10% of the dose of meth went through the BBB, similar to what happens when people smoke meth. Researchers were then able to examine how parts of the brain communicate, giving them insight that they wouldn’t be able to glean without the organ chips. 

“The novelty relating to organ chips is that they enable us to carry out what is essentially a ‘synthetic biology’ approach at the cell, tissue, and organ level,” said Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute.

“In this study, we could use this synthetic approach to break down a complex organ—in this case, the human brain—into individual sub-compartments of the brain microvasculature and normally tightly intertwined neuronal networks. Because we can separate out each compartment and control ‘ins and outs,’ while analyzing them with state-of-the-art analytical technologies, we were able to gain insights into how cells within these different compartments communicate with each other.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.