Anatomically Inspired Three-dimensional Micro-tissue Engineered Neural Networks for Nervous System Reconstruction, Modulation, and Modeling

J Vis Exp. 2017 May 31;(123):55609. doi: 10.3791/55609.


Functional recovery rarely occurs following injury or disease-induced degeneration within the central nervous system (CNS) due to the inhibitory environment and the limited capacity for neurogenesis. We are developing a strategy to simultaneously address neuronal and axonal pathway loss within the damaged CNS. This manuscript presents the fabrication protocol for micro-tissue engineered neural networks (micro-TENNs), implantable constructs consisting of neurons and aligned axonal tracts spanning the extracellular matrix (ECM) lumen of a preformed hydrogel cylinder hundreds of microns in diameter that may extend centimeters in length. Neuronal aggregates are delimited to the extremes of the three-dimensional encasement and are spanned by axonal projections. Micro-TENNs are uniquely poised as a strategy for CNS reconstruction, emulating aspects of brain connectome cytoarchitecture and potentially providing means for network replacement. The neuronal aggregates may synapse with host tissue to form new functional relays to restore and/or modulate missing or damaged circuitry. These constructs may also act as pro-regenerative "living scaffolds" capable of exploiting developmental mechanisms for cell migration and axonal pathfinding, providing synergistic structural and soluble cues based on the state of regeneration. Micro-TENNs are fabricated by pouring liquid hydrogel into a cylindrical mold containing a longitudinally centered needle. Once the hydrogel has gelled, the needle is removed, leaving a hollow micro-column. An ECM solution is added to the lumen to provide an environment suitable for neuronal adhesion and axonal outgrowth. Dissociated neurons are mechanically aggregated for precise seeding within one or both ends of the micro-column. This methodology reliably produces self-contained miniature constructs with long-projecting axonal tracts that may recapitulate features of brain neuroanatomy. Synaptic immunolabeling and genetically encoded calcium indicators suggest that micro-TENNs possess extensive synaptic distribution and intrinsic electrical activity. Consequently, micro-TENNs represent a promising strategy for targeted neurosurgical reconstruction of brain pathways and may also be applied as biofidelic models to study neurobiological phenomena in vitro.

Publication types

  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology
  • Brain / cytology*
  • Cell Aggregation
  • Hydrogel, Polyethylene Glycol Dimethacrylate / chemistry
  • Nerve Net / cytology*
  • Nerve Regeneration*
  • Rats
  • Tissue Engineering / methods*


  • Hydrogel, Polyethylene Glycol Dimethacrylate