Searching for Autism in our Social Brain

All animals need to know and communicate with their own, so evolution has developed in every brain the ways we all recognize and socialize with each other.

But while other brains are social – no other brain is as social, or can do what the human brain can – and as far as science knows – it also seems that no other brain can suffer from conditions like autism. Are these two fortunes somehow linked?

That is a question that many are asking, including Alysson Muotri’s lab at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. They are using brain organoids to unravel this mystery, but where do they start looking for the root causes of these conditions?

Enter Katerina Semendeferi, noted biological anthropologist, whose experience conducting neuroanatomical comparisons of our primate predecessors, as well as typical and atypical human neuroanatomy, is helping to focus the search for causes of atypical behavioral conditions like autism and Williams Syndrome. Her work has pointed to neuroanatomical differences, on scales from whole brain structures, down to individual neurons and the genetics of neurodevelopment.

She reveals what she has found, and how this helps the Muotri Lab’s studies with brain organoids in the search for autism in our social brains.

Watch — Searching for Autism in our Social Brain

Impact of Early Life Deprivation

Unlike most other animals, much of human brain development and maturation occurs after birth, a process that continues into early adulthood. This unusual pattern allows for greater influences of environment and culture on the emergence of the adult mind.

This series of programs from the recent CARTA symposium addresses the interactive contributions of nature and nurture in this process, ranging from experiments by ancient monarchs and lessons from “feral” children of various kinds, to the follow-up on Romanian orphans.

Distinguished speakers address comparative and neurobiological issues which likely played a key role in the origins of the human species and in the evolution of distinct features of our minds.

Browse more programs in Impact of Early Life Deprivation on Cognition: Implications for the Evolutionary Origins of the Human Mind.

Editing the Code of Life

You may not know what clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats means, but when you see or hear the word CRISPR it all takes on new meaning, thanks to the efforts of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, who developed this revolutionary method of genomic editing.

Her work has literally changed the world with her research, with tremendous benefits for the future of humankind and the planet.

The discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 genetic engineering technology has changed human and agricultural genomics research forever. This genome-editing technology enables scientists to change or remove genes quickly and with extreme precision. Labs worldwide have changed the course of their research programs to incorporate this new tool, creating a CRISPR revolution with huge implications across biology and medicine.

This talk marks the occasion of Doudna receiving the UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s 2019 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest.

Watch — Editing the Code of Life: Into the Future with CRISPR Technology with Jennifer Doudna – 2019 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest

Bracing for Fire When the Wind Blows

As recent events have shown, strong winds can spell disaster, even without the presence of fire. But when a fire does occur, the ALERTWildfire camera network deployed across the region provides rapid confirmation of emergency wildfire 911 calls, situational awareness, and in the worst-case scenarios, real-time data to help sequence evacuations.

ALERTWildfire is a consortium of three universities: University of Nevada at Reno, UC San Diego, and University of Oregon. During the past three fire seasons (2016-2018), ALERTWildfire provided critical information for over 600 fires, including the Woolsey, Lilac, Wall, Whittier, Thomas, Tule, Woodchuck, Earthstone, Truckee, Draw, Snowstorm, Hot Pot, and Emerald fires; a 2016 arson spree in Lake Tahoe; and hundreds more.

Join Neal Driscoll to learn how California is using technology to help firefighters and improve public preparedness during wildfire disasters.

Watch — Bracing for Fire When the Wind Blows

Unlocking the Mysteries of the Brain Through Stem Cell Research

Inside a lab at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, researchers are doing something truly remarkable. They are growing tiny versions of developing human brains in order to study everything from Alzheimer’s disease to the Zika virus. Alysson Muotri is the co-director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program and leads the team researching brain organoids. He recently sat down with Dr. David Granet on Health Matters to discuss the endless possibilities of his research.

Muotri’s organoids are often referred to as “mini-brains,” but they are far from what that name might suggest. The organoids are grown from stem cells, which are harvested from living tissue, such as skin cells. Researchers give those stem cells instructions to become neural cells. Eventually they form tiny clusters of neural cells, about the size of a pea. Those clusters have been shown to exhibit some of the same characteristics of developing human brains, including firing electrical signals in specific patterns. But, the organoids do not contain every type of brain tissue, and have no vascularization.

Despite the differences with the human brain, organoids have proven useful in understanding and treating disease. One of the major successes of Muotri’s research was finding and testing an existing drug to treat mothers infected with Zika virus. The drug can prevent the disease from being passed to the baby and causing microcephaly. Muotri is hoping his lab will continue to have success using the organoids as an effective brain model to find more cures, and provide a deeper understanding of brain development and disease. And, his work isn’t limited to Earth. Muotri recently launched his organoids into space for a groundbreaking study.

Watch — Using Stem Cells to Research the Brain – Health Matters