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Home to billions of cells that form trillions of connections, the human brain isn’t just the body’s most important organ, it’s also the hardest to study. But an international team of scientists using cutting-edge stem cell technology has devised a new way to better understand the brain’s cellular cleanup crew — and its connection to neurological disease.

Researchers coaxed stem cells to grow into microglia, immune cells that roam the brain searching for signs of damage and that monitor and maintain neuronal connections. They then added microglia to brain organoids, tiny 3D structures of neurons that mimic some aspects of brain function, and transplanted these microglia-containing “mini-brains” into mice. Doing so caused microglia to look and behave much more like they would in a human brain compared to previous lab experiments conducted in a dish.


The authors also found early hints that they could use these transplanted organoids to study disease, including the role that microglia might play in autism. Microglia in brain organoids derived from people with autism had larger cell bodies than cells from controls and had an overabundance of small cellular extensions associated with an active, inflammatory state researchers believe may contribute to the disorder.

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