UTSA scientists using 'mini brains' to research complex, incurable brain disorders

Hope is to find cure for brain diseases

SAN ANTONIO – A group of scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio is growing mini brains in the hopes of finding a cure to some of the most complex and incurable brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, seizures and epilepsy.

The group is doing the experiments with the help of people with the disorders, who have volunteered their stem cells to create organoids, or mini brains, that can be studied on a petri dish.

Jenny Hsieh, UTSA's brain health consortium director, said up to this point, it’s been difficult to study how brain disorders are formed because the brain is difficult to study from its infancy.  

“We lack understanding of how the brain is born. How does it develop when there's disease of the brain? We don’t know the root cause of the diseases,” she said.

By getting blood or a tissue sample from volunteers, researchers are able to create stem cells from which they can extract organoids of the brain, a miniature, simplified version of the organ. UTSA researchers can watch the brain grow, move and develop.

“We are starting to learn for the first time how human neurons are developed. This is something we've never been able to watch,” Hsieh said. “We can see how they develop, how long it takes to make connections and the connectivity they have.”

Researchers can also take molecular scissors to scan the DNA and figure out the mutation.

“Now we can very precisely edit the person’s DNA in order to understand if that gene causes the disease, and this could be a way that we could fix the patients' genetic mutation,” Hsieh said.

The whole experiment takes place in a petri dish, without every putting the patient in harm’s way. The goal is to create specialized medicine with the research.

“The ultimate goal is to use personalized models of brain disorders, starting with patients' stem cells, to develop new drugs so that we can benefit patients that have these very debilitating brain disorders that currently there are no drugs for," Hsieh said.

The mini brains are only about 3 to 4 millimeters in size, but they can be a powerful tool in finding cures. Hsieh said it's the first time this type of research is being done in Texas.

True solutions are still years away, but it’s a start.

The research is done through grants and donations from private foundations. To find out more about how to be a part of it or to volunteer samples, click here

About the Author:

Patty Santos joined the KSAT 12 News team in July 2017. She has a proven track record of reporting on hard-hitting news that affects the community.