Discovery of the Earliest Biological Indicators of Autism in Mini-Brain Experiments
Credits: PHILIPPE LOPEZ / AFP

Discovery of the Earliest Biological Indicators of Autism in Mini-Brain Experiments

A new study using lab-grown "mini-brains" provides crucial insights into the biological basis behind the varied symptoms seen in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The findings could help us better understand and manage this complex neurological condition.

The study, conducted by an international team of scientists, involved using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from the blood of 10 toddlers with ASD and 6 neurotypical controls. These iPSCs were then grown into brain cortical organoids (BCOs), which are simplified 3D models of brain structures. 

The key discovery was that the mini-brains made from the ASD patients' cells were around 40% larger compared to the controls. Interestingly, the researchers found that the larger the BCOs, the more severe the child's social symptoms of autism. Toddlers with the most profound autism had the biggest BCO overgrowth during early brain development.

"We found the larger the embryonic BCO size, the more severe the child's later autism social symptoms," explains neuroscientist Eric Courchesne from the University of California San Diego. "Toddlers who had profound autism, which is the most severe type, had the largest BCO overgrowth."

The increased size of the BCOs matched enlargement in the social processing regions of the brains of children with more severe ASD. These kids also showed reduced responses to social stimuli, according to Science alert.

"Notably, these toddlers with profound autism and enlarged BCOs had substantially enlarged primary auditory and somatosensory cortices," the researchers write. "This finding highlights and helps explain the sensory and social attention issues seen in profound autism."

While many complex factors contribute to ASD, the new findings suggest that some form of overstimulation in brain growth, even at the embryonic stage, may play a role. The researchers say future studies on larger ASD sample sizes will likely uncover additional neurobiological subtypes of the condition.

"By embryogenesis, the biological bases of two subtypes of ASD social and brain development – profound autism and mild autism – are already present and measurable," they conclude.

This research brings us closer to unraveling the origins of autism's diverse manifestations, which range from milder symptoms to profound lifelong challenges. Understanding these neurological underpinnings could aid in developing more personalized approaches to managing ASD.

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