Can tiny brains grown in a dish reveal the secrets of sociability? Balls of brain tissue generated from stem cells are enabling us to understand the underlying differences between people who struggle to be sociable and those who have difficulty reining themselves in.
Alysson Muotri at the University of California, San Diego, and his team created the mini-brains by exposing stem cells taken from the pulp of children’s milk teeth to cocktails of growth factors that help them mature. Eventually, they can develop as many as six layers of cerebral cortex.
The team found that mini-brains grown using stem cells from children with autism form fewer neural connections, while those from Williams syndrome children have an abnormally high number. When cells from the teeth of children with none of these conditions were used, the resulting mini-brains were somewhere in between these two extremes.
“The differences are striking, and go in opposite directions,” says Muotri. “In Williams syndrome, one of the cortical layers makes large projections linking into many other layers, and these are important for sociality,” he says. “By comparison, autism-linked brains are more immature, with fewer synapses,” he says.
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