SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) – In a groundbreaking research study, scientists from University of Utah Health may have opened a window into autism.

By bioengineering the “brain-like organoids”, Dr. Alex Scheglovitov, an assistant professor of neurobiology at U of U Health, and his team were able to investigate the effects of energetic abnormalities associated with autism spectrum disorder.

What they found was that even though the autism organoid model some cells within did not function properly. 

The autism organoid models were engineered to have lower levels of the SHANK3 gene. MedlinePlus states that the SHANK3 gene provides instructions for making a protein that plays a role in the function of connections between nerve cells, or neurons. The protein ensures that signals that are sent from one neuron is received by another.

In the models with lower SHANK3 levels, Scheglovitov and his team found that neurons were hyperactive, firing more often in response to stimuli. There were also signs that neurons did not efficiently pass along signals to other neurons and that some pathways for cells to adhere with one another were disrupted. 

“We used to think it would be too difficult to model the organization of cells in the brain,” said  Shcheglovitov. “But these organoids self-organize. Within a few months, we see layers of cells that are reminiscent of the cerebral cortex in the human brain.” 

Each organoid takes about five months to grow using stem cells inside a petri dish. After 15 to 19 weeks, the organoids become reminiscent of “one wrinkle of a human brain,” according to Scheglovitov. 

While scientists have been able to grow organoids before, previous versions have not developed in a reproducible way, making experiments difficult. Being able to reproduce these organoids, U of U Health Scientists have had access to model aspects of the brain, gaining a glimpse into the earliest stages of neurological conditions, before symptoms develop.

“We’re beginning to understand how complex neural structures in the human brain arise from simple progenitors,” said Dr. Yueqi Wang, a former graduate student in Shcheglovitov’s lab and lead author on the study.  “And we’re able to measure disease-related phenotypes using 3D organoids that are derived from stem cells containing genetic mutations.”