Mayo Clinic study uses “mini brains” to research opioid addiction treatment

Mayo Clinic leads new study using "mini brains" for opioids addiction research.
Published: Dec. 2, 2022 at 5:45 PM CST
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ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) – According to the national library of medicine, 3 million Americans are currently suffering from opioid use disorder. Last year, opioids were linked to nearly 100,00 overdose deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC.

In Rochester, researchers at the Mayo Clinic are working to address this epidemic through a new study using what they call “mini brains.”

In the study, people who are struggling with drug addiction provide a blood sample to the researcher who then take that blood sample and turn it into brain organoids, or mini-brains. This helps them study how the brain cells of people with opioid use disorder differ from those without the addiction disease, and also how various treatments for opioid use disorder change the function of brain cells.

Recently, there’s been a push in the medical field to study mental disorders, like drug addiction, with a more holistic approach rather than only looking at a patient’s mental health.

“I was using genomics to try to understand why some people develop these diseases and others don’t,” Mayo Clinic professor of pharmacology and medicine Dr. Richard Weinshilboum said.

One way is to look at an individual’s DNA, but that can be difficult when wanting to study how someone’s brain functions.

“One of the limitations doing this kind of research is we haven’t had direct access to that individual with their genome to what their brain may function like,” Dr. Weinshilboum said.

But at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, researchers are creating an actual model of a brain from only a blood sample.

“We can use any kind of cells from humans and then convert to stem cells,” Mayo Clinic stem cell biologist and lead author of the study Dr. Wing-Fen Ho said.

How it works is the blood is turned into a stem cell which is used to grow a neuron network. This takes four to six weeks.

“You need to see neutron-transmitters, you need to see the brain cell types. They are neurons that are exercised different types of brain cells,” Dr. Ho said.

The mini brains are different. These take six months to grow and are used as a cell model to study and test drugs.

“It’s not an organ yet, this is just part of the brain. It’s not the entire brain,” Dr. Ho said.

“What we’re doing is then taking these organoids and using them as a barometer of what the outside influence that is the drugs, we actually use to study them do,” Dr. Weinshilboum said.

In order to create a mini brain, the stem cells need to be constantly moving. There wasn’t a machine at Mayo Clinic that could complete this task.

So Dr. Ho made it herself, using tools she keeps on her desk.

“Those instruments have to run constantly, 24/7,” Dr. Ho said.

This cutting-edge research was unimaginable a decade ago.

“If you had told me we could ever do this, I’d have laughed. I’d have said that’s crazy,” Dr. Weinshilboum said.

This research is moving the psychiatric field forward and could potentially save hundred of thousands of lives.

“Hopefully giving us a way to develop new drugs and knowing the limitations of the drugs we currently use. We will have a much better understanding of these diseases,” Dr. Weinshilboum said.

Through this research, Dr. Ho and her team have found there could a relationship between opioid addiction and inflammation, which is when the immune system in the brain is overactive.