Using ‘mini brains’ to study Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other disorders hits a potential snag

brains
Image: David Poller/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Brain organoids, often called “minibrains,” have changed the way scientists study human brain development and disorders like autism.

But the cells in these organoids differ from those in an actual brain in some important ways, scientists reported [January 29] in the journal Nature.

The finding suggests that scientists need to be cautious about extrapolating results found in organoids to people, says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.

“It’s far too early to start using organoids as examples of normal brain development because we just don’t know how well they really represent what’s going on in utero,” Kriegstein says.

Related article:  CDC says autism is on the rise—and why it may be worse than we think

“In the normal brain you have very clear and precise different types of cells,” [postdoctoral researcher Aparna Bhaduri] says. “What we’re seeing in the organoid is more of a confused identity.”

The new study doesn’t invalidate current research using brain organoids, Kriegstein says. Instead it offers a roadmap to improve the model so that researchers can learn more about diseases and disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, and schizophrenia.

“If you’re going to model those diseases in a dish, you really want to make sure you’re reproducing the same cells with the same cell type identities that they would normally have,” Kriegstein says.

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