Researchers across all of the sciences are constantly exploring new and improved ways to gain a better understanding of neurological disorders such as epilepsy, autism, or Alzheimer’s disease. Through studying how brain organoids grow, new light has been shed that could help research in epilepsy, autism and other brain disorders as this area has great potential for helping to unearth the mysteries behind brain disorders.
What Are Brain Organoids?
According to a report in the journal Nature, researchers from Stanford discovered that there is a genetic mutation associated with autism and epilepsy that keep "developing cells from migrating normally from one cluster of brain cells to another.”
In addition, they discovered that the cells that did not migrate could cause problems with the normal development of the brain. Researchers experimented on tiny clusters of cells no bigger than the head of a pin. These clusters were created by transforming skin cells into neural stem cells. The brain organoids (also called mini brains or spheroids) grew into structures similar to what is found in the human brain. In fact, by forming networks, the cells were even capable of communicating with one another.
Why Study Brain Organoids?
Even though brain organoids are unable to grow large or perform all the same functions as a brain, they provide scientists with much more insight into to how our brains develop. Studying these petri dish brain organoids provide more viable information than from the animal brain as the animal brain does not grow in the same way as a human brain. Brain organoids reveal how brain cell networks form together and function. They can also show how they are affected by drugs and genetic manipulations so they can be valuable for new treatment studies.
Brain Organoids Provide Greater Insight
Researchers also found the brain organoids to be a better solution than using brain cell cultures. The reason is simple. Because the brain cell cultures develop in two-dimensional layers, they cannot develop connections and networks. However, the brain organoids develop three-dimensionally and that means that the organoids can migrate, form connections and develop networks.
Dr. Sergiu Pasca, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University who led the team that conducted the studies wanted to know how cells deep in the brain migrate during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. It’s a critical time in brain development and how the cells migrate from the depths of the brain toward the surface is important to understand. They tried to replicate this migration by growing the brain organoids and studying them. Pasca found that the brain organoids did migrate, but not the way he expected. They didn’t crawl, they jumped.
He suspected that the brain organoids migration could be disrupted by a type of genetic disorder that can cause a form epilepsy and autism known as Timothy syndrome, so he then tested cells from a patient with Timothy syndrome. He saw that those cells didn’t jump as far as healthy cells did. Knowing that blood pressure medicines use blockers to keep calcium out of the cell, he applied a certain calcium blocker on the organoids. It worked and the clusters of organoids were able to restore cell migration to normal.
To what degree can brain organoids be a reliable model for observing brain growth?
In certain ways, how brain organoids grow mirror the way human brain cells grow. Their cells divide in the same way and take on the characteristic of the part of the brain that they are from. They cluster into 3-D layers. Importantly, they are observable, giving scientists information that cannot be seen inside the human head.
As the team continues their studies in this area, their next challenge is to see whether they can get larger groups of cells to live longer. The more they can create a model that mimics the brain, the more studies will advance in this fascinating area of study.
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