Brain-like organoids grown in a dish provide window into autism: The structures are reminiscent of one wrinkle of a human brain at 15 to 19 weeks post-conception

Whatever you do, don’t call them “mini-brains,” say University of Utah Health scientists. Regardless, the seed-sized organoids — which are grown in the lab from human cells — provide insights into the brain and uncover differences that may contribute to autism in some people.

“We used to think it would be too difficult to model the organization of cells in the brain,” says Alex Shcheglovitov, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology at U of U Health. “But these organoids self-organize. Within a few months, we see layers of cells that are reminiscent of the cerebral cortex in the human brain.”

The research describing the organoids and their potential for understanding neural diseases publishes in Nature Communicationson Oct 6with Shcheglovitov as senior author and Yueqi Wang, PhD, a former graduate student in his lab, as lead author. They carried out the research with postdoctoral scientist Simone Chiola, PhD, and other collaborators at the University of Utah, Harvard University, University of Milan, and Montana State University.

Investigating autism

Having the ability to model aspects of the brain in this way gives scientists a glimpse into the inner workings of a living organ that is otherwise nearly impossible to access. And since the organoids grow in a dish, they can be tested experimentally in ways that a brain cannot.

Shcheglovitov’s team used an innovative process to investigate effects of a genetic abnormality associated with autism spectrum disorder and human brain development. They found that organoids engineered to have lower levels of the gene, called SHANK3, had distinct features.

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