Bundles of cells hint at biological differences of autistic brains

Brainlike structures

STOP SIGNS  Brainlike structures grown from autistic patients’ stem cells (right) produced greater numbers of brain cells that make other brain cells less active (green and red) compared with structures grown from the cells of a non-autistic family member (left). These cells were observed 31 days after the stem cells became brain cells. 

Mariani et al/Cell 2015

Brainlike cell bundles grown in a lab may expose some of the biological differences of autistic brains.

Researchers chemically reprogrammed human stem cells into small bundles of functional brain cells that mimic the developing brain. These “organoids” appear to be different when built with cells from autistic patients compared with when they are built with cells from the patients’ non-autistic family members, researchers report July 16 in Cell.

The brainlike structures created from cells taken from autistic children showed increased activity in genes that control brain-cell growth and development. Too much activity in one of these genes led to an overproduction of a certain type of brain cell that suppresses the activity of other brain cells. At an early stage of development, the miniature organs grown from autistic patients’ stem cells also showed faster cell division rates than those grown from the cells of non-autistic relatives.

Though the study was small, using cells from only four autistic patients and eight family members, the results may indicate common factors underlying autism, the scientists say.

For more on autism, read SN‘s feature, “Adults with autism are left to navigate a jarring world.”

More Stories from Science News on Neuroscience