“Mini-brains” model an autism spectrum disorder and help test treatments

Alysson Muotri, PhD, professor and director of the Stem Cell Program at UC San Diego School of Medicine
and member of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine.
Image credit: UC San Diego Health

Rett syndrome is a rare form of autism spectrum disorder that impairs brain development and causes problems with movement, speech, and even breathing. It is caused by mutations in a gene called MECP2 and primarily affects females. Although there are therapies to alleviate symptoms, there is currently no cure for this genetic disorder.

With CIRM funding ($1.37M and $1.65M awards), Alysson Muotri, PhD and a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine have used brain organoids that mimic Rett syndrome to identify two drug candidates that returned the “mini-brains” to near-normal. The drugs restored calcium levels, neurotransmitter production, and electrical impulse activity.

Brain organoids, also referred to as “mini-brains”, are 3D models made of cells that can be used to analyze certain features of the human brain. Although they are far from perfect replicas, they can be used to study changes in physical structure or gene expression over time.

Dr. Muotri and his team created induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a type of stem cell that can become virtually any type of cell. For the purposes of this study, they were created from the skin cells of Rett syndrome patients. The newly created iPSCs were then turned into brain cells and used to create “mini-brains”, thereby preserving each Rett syndrome patient’s genetic background. In addition to this, the team also created “mini-brains” that artificially lack the MECP2 gene, mimicking the issues with the same gene observed in Rett syndrome.

Lack of the MECP2 gene changed many things about the “mini-brains” such as shape, neuron subtypes present, gene expression patterns, neurotransmitter production, and decreases in calcium activity and electrical impulses. These changes led to major defects in the emergence of brainwaves.

To correct the changes caused by the lack of the MECP2 gene, the team treated the brain organoids with 14 different drug candidates known to affect various brain cell functions. Of all the drugs tested, two stood out: nefiracetam and PHA 543613. The two drugs resolved nearly all molecular and cellular symptoms observed in the Rett syndrome “mini-brains”, with the number active neurons doubling post treatment.

The two drugs were previously tested in clinical trials for the treatment of other conditions, meaning they have been shown to be safe for human consumption.

In a news release from UC San Diego Health, Dr. Muotri stresses that although the results for the two drugs are promising, the end treatment for Rett syndrome may require a multi-drug cocktail of sorts.

“There’s a tendency in the neuroscience field to look for highly specific drugs that hit exact targets, and to use a single drug for a complex disease. But we don’t do that for many other complex disorders, where multi-pronged treatments are used. Likewise, here no one target fixed all the problems. We need to start thinking in terms of drug cocktails, as have been successful in treating HIV and cancers.”

The full results of this study were published in EMBO Molecular Medicine.

4 thoughts on ““Mini-brains” model an autism spectrum disorder and help test treatments

    • In theory yes but so far they haven’t been tested on a TBI model and that would be necessary, along with a lot more research, before the researchers would be able to think about trying them in people.

  1. Is there any research being done on primary microcephaly, not caused by Zika virus, but rather genetic causes? I have 2 children born with it. Thank you, Mary Mccormick

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