BRAINS – Uni students will conduct experiment in Space

Five students from the University of Luxembourg will send mini brains to the International Space Station (ISS) to carry out research experiments under microgravity conditions.The interdisciplinary project BRAINS (Biological Research using Artificial Intelligence for Neuroscience in Space) was selected as one of four projects by the jury of the Überflieger 2 competition. The bi-national competition was organised by the German Space Agency (DLR), the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA), the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (PDG), and Yuri GmbH.

Brain organoids on the ISS

Elisa Zuccoli, a Ph.D. candidate from the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and BRAINS team leader, is very excited “We are extremely happy to have the opportunity to investigate the growth of our 3D cell cultures in space. Microgravity provides a more accurate scenario than on-ground, it mimics the free-floating state during embryonic development resulting in a more physiologically relevant organisation.” Despite the fact that objects float and appear to be weightless in low Earth orbit, gravity is not zero but very small (microgravity). 3D cell culture systems, so-called organoids, have a wide variety of applications in disease modeling (e.g. midbrain organoids are used to model Parkinson’s disease) and drug screening.

“The growth of the brain organoids under microgravity has an immense potential impact on the future pharma industry and regenerative medicine.” Explains Prof. Jens Schwamborn, head of the Developmental and Cellular Biology group at the LCSB and co-supervisor of the BRAINS team. Brain organoids are miniaturised and simplified versions of the brain showing realistic micro-anatomy but produced in the lab. Spatial organisation and cell population diversity are typically limited to 2-3 mm in diameter on-ground, but midbrain organoids could grow up to larger sizes (< 5 mm diameter) in space. “The findings of this experiment can provide an essential foundation in neuroscience and cell culture techniques, showing the behaviour of brain cells in space.” Prof. Schwamborn adds.

Joined forces of an interdisciplinary team

The team consists of fellow Ph.D. candidate José Ignacio Delgado Centeno, and three Master students, Daniela Vega Gutiérrez (Master programme Integrated Systems Biology), Aelyn Chong Castro and Lina María Amaya Mejía (Interdisciplinary Space Master). Together they intend to investigate if the brain organoids will be less densely packed, and if they can grow larger than in standard gravity conditions. The team will use artificial intelligence for image analysis to compare their findings to current experiments performed on the ground. The team will be invited to witness the launch of the rocket that will carry their experiment to the ISS (most likely from a launch facility in the USA during the fourth quarter of 2022 or the first quarter of 2023).

Prof. Miguel Angel Olivares Mendez, head of the Space Robotics (SpaceR) group at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) and co-supervisor of the BRAINS team, explains the importance of space research: “These types of experiments, and any other activity in space, demand an increment of autonomy to reduce human interaction. Therefore, the use of artificial intelligence and a higher level of autonomy will be one of the disrupting technologies in the new space era. In BRAINS, we will implement an autonomous system that could operate the experiment without human intervention”.

Dr. Carol Martinez Luna, research scientist in SnT’s SpaceR research group and co-supervisor of the BRAINS team, comments on the role of machine learning within the BRAINS project: “As in Earth applications, machine learning-based approaches generate outstanding outcomes for facial recognition, object detection, and even autonomous driving. In BRAINS, we will develop a machine learning approach to detect, identify and measure the brain organoids cells grown in space.”

The project is supported by Yuri GmbH, OrganoTherapeutics SARL, the University of Luxembourg’s LunaLab, the Developmental and Cellular Biology group at the LCSB and the SpaceR research group at SnT, through the provision of material, know-how, and access to state-of-the-art equipment. You can follow the team’s progress on Twitter and Instagram: brainspace_lux

The members of the project BRAINS

Photo from left right: José Ignacio Delgado Centeno, Lina María Amaya Mejía, Elisa Zuccoli, Daniela Vega Gutiérrez and Aelyn Chong Castro in the LunaLab 

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