Bizarre Mini Brains Offer a Fascinating New Look at the Brain

ScienceNeuroscienceBizarre Mini Brains Offer a Fascinating New Look at the BrainBy Shelly Fan – May 16, 20173,228Brain balls sound like something straight out of a Tim Burton movie: starting as stem cells harvested from patients, they eventually develop into masses of living neurons, jumbled together in misshapen blobs.Just like the developing brain, these neurons stretch and grow, reaching out skinny branches that grab onto others to form synapses—junctions where one neuron talks with the next.And they do talk: previous attempts at growing these “brain organoids” found that they spark with electrical activity, much like the webs of neurons inside our heads that lead to thoughts and memories.They’re creepy. They’re fascinating. And they may be neuroscientists’ best bet at modeling developmental disorders like autism in a dish.Last week, two studies published in the prestigious journal Nature argued for brain balls as a reductionist model for broken brains. In one study, scientists took skin cells from patients with Timothy syndrome, a devastating neurodevelopmental disorder that often ends with childhood death, and grew them into brain balls to study where and how the developing brain veered off track.

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