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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Scientists will create mini-brains to treat autism

Por Rory

A group of Portuguese scientists, led by Catarina Seabra, a researcher at the University of Coimbra (UC), will create mini-brains of 4 millimeters from dental cells of autistic people for the study of this disease. The novel project, which will develop three-dimensional brains of human origin to study autism, will be financed with a Marie-Curie grant of 150,000 euros that the European Commission has awarded to the young Portuguese researcher.

The research will be developed during the next two years at the Center for Neurosciences and Cellular Biology (CNC) of the UC, within the scope of the ProTeAN project, directed by the researcher João Peça of the CNV's Neural and Behavioral Circuits Group.The final goal of the project is to "enable a personalized medicine for each patient with autism," explained Catarina Seabra.

The mini-brains that they will create are balls of human brain cells that grow and are capable of forming structures similar to those of the brain in about a month. The dental cells, collected when a tooth falls or the patient's own milk teeth, will be transformed from laboratory cultures into neurons. "The brain will be active after 4 or 8 months and can be used for a period of two years, since from that moment they begin to die because they do not have blood vessels," said the researcher.

According to the scientific group that participates in the initiative, with these mini-brains it will be possible to explore in an innovative way the characteristics of the brain of people with autism, with special attention to the morphological changes and to the communication between the neurons. In addition, "we can see how neurons are organized, their shape and how they communicate with each other".

This will enable them to make comparisons between the functioning of a healthy person's brain and that of another who suffers from autism, a disease that, according to UC, affects one in every 68 children. After the comparisons, Catarina Seabra, who resides in the town of Vila Nova de Tazem - in the Serra da Estrela Natural Park (center of the country), has explained that they will proceed with the application of drugs to directly reverse what they found in the mini-brains.

From these brains it will be possible to "analyze the therapeutic objectives adjusted to the specificities of each autistic patient," she said. In addition, conventional laboratory tests, such as those performed with mouse brains, will be replaced. One of the problems that usually arise after the tests with mice is that drugs that are applied in animals can fail when they are applied in humans, with the consequent loss of time and money.

For now, although the research is in its initial phase, 150 autistic patients have already been selected from the 1,500 registered in the Autism Unit of the Pediatric Hospital of Coimbra, where they will also analyze the genetic alterations. The Institute for Brain Research of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) of the US city of Boston will also collaborate in this initiative.