The researcher is Alysson Muotri of the University of California, San Diego, who is trying crack some of the mysteries of brain development and mental disorders. His space cell project has been supported by $2.1 million from California's $3 billion stem cell agency along with other funding.
Muotri is a brain organoid man, so to speak. Muotri and his team grew clusters of cells called brain organoids and sent them into space in July with the help of NASA to see how they would develop in zero gravity.
Carl Zimmer of the New York Times wrote 1,000 words about the experiment. This morning his piece was on the front page of the Times website with this headline: "These brain cell blobs are growing 'like crazy' in space."
"What, exactly, are they growing into?" Zimmer's article asked. "That's a question that has scientists and philosophers alike scratching their heads."
"As the organoids mature," Zimmer wrote, "the researchers also found, the waves change in ways that resemble the changes in the developing brains of premature babies."
Zimmer quoted Giorgia Quadrato, a neurobiologist at USC who was not involved in the study, on the subject:
“It’s pretty amazing. No one really knew if that was possible.”The Times piece continued,
"But Dr. Quadrato stressed it was important not to read too much into the parallels. What she, Dr. Muotri and other brain organoid experts build are clusters of replicating brain cells, not actual brains.
“People will say, ‘Ah, these are like the brains of preterm infants,’ she said. 'No, they are not.'"
In response to a query, Muotri told the California Stem Cell Report:
"CIRM funding was used on this last work to optimize the brain organoid protocol. We used this tool in our last two grants, including the one on Zika virus. So, thankfully to CIRM we now have a reproducible and more robust protocol.
"I think the importance and potential impact of this study is quite significant. We can now model neurological and psychiatric conditions that are caused by defects in the network. All previous brain organoid protocols couldn’t get to this level of activity."
"In a first, cerebral organoids produce complex brain waves similar to newborns’, reviving ethical concerns."
"AI Algorithm Can’t Distinguish These Lab Mini-Brains from Preemie Babies"Here is what CIRM had to say this morning about Muotri's research on the agency's blog, The Stem Cellar.
"These new organoids allow us to explore how new therapies might work in the human brain, and hopefully increase our ability to develop more effective treatments for conditions as varied as epilepsy and autism."How Muotri might translate brain cells in space into therapies for such things as autism is yet to be determined. But there is little doubt that his latest results will draw increased attention nationally and internationally in the coming months.
(Editor's note: The information about CIRM's blog was not contained in earlier versions of this item.)