How does autism begin? A project to study brain development Stem cell research has transformed the way we study autism. Researchers funded by ART have been pioneering a technique nicknamed the ‘brain in a dish’ approach, which involves growing cells in a laboratory to see how the brain develops in the first weeks of life. Eventually, this could lead us to a far deeper understanding of not just autism, but a variety of conditions linked to the brain. We spoke to the lead researcher, Dwaipayan Adhya (Deep), to find out more about the project. Deep, could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to lead this project for ART? I originally joined ART to work on my PhD with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. I was working on a molecular biology project, looking at the impact of steroids on brain development in the early weeks of life. This project is a continuation of my PHD. Could you introduce us to the project? We started out looking at the impact of steroids on neurons while the brain is developing. Previous research suggests, for example, that oestrogen may protect neurons in the developing brain from the symptoms of autism. But we soon became aware of a knowledge gap in general around what actually happens to stem cells in the first eight weeks of pregnancy. So, we have taken a step back to examine this. We need to understand the neurons first, and then look at how the steroids affect them. What is the ‘brain in a dish approach’? We take hair samples from both neurotypical and autistic people, and use these samples to make stem cells which have the same genetic profile as the person they are taken from. You can make any cell of the body with these, so we make neurons. What new findings have come out of the research so far? There are 30,000 genes which produce proteins. We looked at the levels of these genes in cells for people with a variety of different genetic backgrounds. We found significant differences between the levels of genes in autistic and typical cells, which was a major breakthrough for us. Our next step was to look at a critical stage in the brain’s development – the formation of the neural tube. We found significant differences in the way it forms in the autistic and control samples. There is a delicate balance of cells in the adult brain which can be impacted even at this early stage of development. Next, we hope to get funding for studies to look at what kind of cells might be impacted by the way the neural tube develops in autism. Why is the cellular study of autism so important? We know there are some inherited genes for autism, but sometimes it occurs without them. Cellular studies have also shown us there may be something non-gene-related happening to cells which causes autism. If we are to fully understand autism as a condition we must have a better understanding of its non-genetic causes. At the moment the brain is a bit like a black box to us. We don’t fully understand why anomalies happen. But now we have the technology and the expertise to increase that understanding. In the long term, if we can demonstrate the physical causes of mental health issues through cellular and genetic studies, it could help tackle the stigma which psychiatric patients, and people with conditions like autism, sometimes have to face. Help us fund more research like this. Donate today and help us improve the lives of autistic people and their families.