Frozen brain tissue brought back to life with major breakthrough

Brain frozen in ice cubes

Brain frozen in ice cube (Credits: Getty Images/Tetra images RF)

Scientists may one day be able to freeze the brain and bring it back to life after a major breakthrough in cryogenics.

Researchers in China have successfully frozen and thawed human brain tissue, returning it to normal function.

They hope the new technique will improve the ways of studying neurological disorders.

Normally, brain tissue does not survive freezing and thawing – although that doesn’t stop people from paying to have just their brains or their entire bodies cryogenically frozen in the hope of being resuscitated in the future.

Dr. However, Zhicheng Shao and his colleagues at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, have successfully developed a solution that can keep brain tissue alive while it is frozen.

The team used human embryonic stem cells to grow brain organoids – small clusters of self-organizing brain cells – for three weeks, after which they developed into different types of brain cells.

They then placed the organoids in various chemical compounds that they hoped would help preserve the tissue while it was frozen in liquid nitrogen for at least 24 hours – including sugars and antifreeze.

Brain cell close-up

Brain cells usually do not survive freezing and thawing (Photo: Getty)

After the samples thawed, the team monitored them for growth and cell death over the next two weeks. Based on the most successful ones, the researchers then repeated the process with different combinations of the chemical compounds, ultimately finding one that led to the least cell death and the most growth after thawing.

The winner is called ‘Medy’, an abbreviation of the four compounds methylcellulose, ethylene glycol, DMSO and Y27632.

Further testing by Medy showed not only that the brain organoids continued to grow for up to 150 days after thawing, but that the compound was also effective for use in freezing and thawing living brain tissue. The team tested 3-millimeter blocks of brain tissue removed from a nine-month-old girl with epilepsy, and found that they remained active for at least two weeks after thawing.

Writing in the journal Cell Reports Methods, the team said: ‘Fresh, viable human brain tissue with natural pathological features is a more reliable model to study neural diseases. [than organoids].

‘However, with limited accessibility and manipulability, cryopreservation and reconstruction of living brain tissue with specific pathological features remains an enormous challenge, as it is difficult to maintain the survival of large numbers of functional neurons.

‘Therefore, it is imperative to develop reliable cryopreservation technology for fresh viable human brain tissue and for brain organoids, which can be used to study the pathological mechanisms of brain diseases, organoid transplantation for brain injury and/or drug discovery.’

Speaking to’s sister publication New Scientist, Professor Dr João Pedro Magalhães from the University of Birmingham said he was impressed by the findings and the solution’s ability to prevent cell death and preserve function.

“We know that brain cells are very fragile and sensitive to stress,” he said, adding that the work could one day be “a small step” toward freezing entire brains.

“If we think decades or centuries ahead, we can imagine patients being cryopreserved when they are in a terminal state, or astronauts being cryopreserved to travel to other galaxies,” he said.

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