Stem cell research has provided scientists with ways to better study and treat certain disorders. Recently, a group of scientists from Harvard and Stanford collaborated to investigate how small-scale copies of neurons called minibrains can better predict future diseases in children. The study was funded by the NIH or the National Institutes of Health and revealed some captivating results. These were published in a paper in the journal Nature.
What are Minibrains, and How are they Made?
By first isolating human skin cells in a laboratory, specialists then reprogramed the cells so that they could convert to brain cells. These cells matured into larger masses in a petri dish. Dr. Sergiu Pasca, an assistant of behavioral sciences at Stanford, stated that the cells were equivalent to those of a fetus after two weeks of pregnancy.
Certain disorders and diseases form during the brain’s growth as a fetus, including strains of Asperger’s and Timothy Syndrome. With replicas of fetal brain cells, scientists can now observe what may cause, treat, and cure such ailments.
The Harvard team extracted cells from a healthy child and one with Timothy Syndrome. When healthy brain cells migrate to send signals to other parts of the body, they literally jump from one mass to another. Researchers found that the cells of those with Timothy Syndrome and autism had trouble “jumping” and made slower movements.
The teams hypothesized that the lack of motion was due to an over-absorption of calcium by the cells. They used blood pressure medications designed to block calcium intake on one dish.
“If you do treat the cultures with this calcium blocker, you can restore the migration of cells in a dish,” says Pasca.
The success of applying the calcium blockers gives scientists hope that this will one day help better understand the human brain.
“It helps us to understand [human brain development], a process that we don’t understand very well.” says Paola Arlotta, Harvard’s stem cell team leader.
With these minibrains, researchers now have the tools they need to not only observe but also test and possibly cure diseases outside of the body itself but beneficial for it.
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