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Making Brain Research Smarter—Advances in Autism Research

People with autism spectrum disorder have a broad range of abilities that sometimes differ from most other people. Individuals with autism display varied social and interactive skills, often have different ways of learning, and sometimes show restricted or repetitive behaviors. Many doctors and researchers study this group of brain disorders to help parents of children with autism understand symptoms that, in some cases, interfere with daily quality of life.

But the brain is complicated, and studying the human brain is no easy task. Understandably, healthy human brain samples are not available to researchers, so scientists have come up with creative alternatives to study the brain. In the past, these methods have fallen short of re-creating all the things that make our brains, well, brain-ey. Now, scientists at University of Utah Health are generating clumps of human brain cells in a dish that resemble some features of a growing human brain. This innovation is improving brain research and helping us understand how conditions of the brain—including autism—may develop.

Autism: what to know

Autism spectrum disorder affects about 1 in 44 children, and boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed. According to the American Brain Foundation, autism includes symptoms that can interfere with everyday function, creating challenges for communication and social engagement. It is considered a developmental disorder because symptoms generally appear before the age of two. Autism is influenced heavily by genetics, and scientists think that learning more about the genetics of the brain could help explain some of the symptoms of autism.


The dish on brain research

Alex Shcheglovitov, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology at U of U Health, is now growing human brain organoids in a dish. These tiny brain clusters, which are about the size of a seed, are not "mini brains" exactly, but they do have some of the same brain functions that we see in humans. Shcheglovitov says that his lab wanted to create a reliable way of mimicking aspects of early human brain development to study health and disease.

In order to grow these brain clusters, scientists teach specific cells how to develop like brain cells. These trained cell clusters are like a small portion of the brain that contribute to language, emotion, and reasoning. Researchers can run tests to learn how the brain organoids respond in different conditions. They can also learn how different genetic mutations change the way that the brain functions and contribute to symptoms of autism.

Brain research could be key to understanding autism

Parents and caregivers often express that children with autism experience distress in various situations. For example, they tend to be sensitive to overstimulation or easily triggered by sensory overload. Shcheglovitov’s team tested their brain organoids grown in a dish and found that autism organoids respond to stimulation differently than typical organoids. This type of comparison is uncovering information about how autism arises and how symptoms manifest, proving useful in learning more about the inner workings of the brain.

The future of brain research

Scientists are using brain organoids to test new, safer, and more effective drug treatments for many diseases. Researchers have even started growing personalized organoids from a patient’s own cells—this could one day help doctors find the best treatment for an individual before ever prescribing a medication.

These organoids are making a big impact in brain research. "It is an important step forward in our ability to model brain development in health and disease," Shcheglovitov says. His lab and others can now test the brain in ways they could not before, providing hope that we may one day understand autism and other brain disorders.