Orbiting Organoids

In July 2019, researchers sent up 100 “mini-brains” to space for research studies. This, of course, begs the questions: What’s a mini-brain? and Why are they in space?

Scientifically known as brain organoids, “mini-brains” are 3-D cellular models that allow scientists to study biological functions in greater detail. Researchers aboard the ISS documented how these early masses of cells organized into the beginnings of a functional brain.

“This is the first in a series of space flights to help us understand the intricacies of brain development, both in weightlessness and on Earth,” says School of Medicine professor and study leader Allyson Muotri.

Muotri and researchers on the ground were able to observe the formation of the neural tube, including cell migration, interaction, division and death, all in real-time. The organoids returned to Earth in mid-September, just before astronaut Jessica Meir, PhD ’09, rocketed to the ISS herself.

Dr. Allyson Muotri holds a container of brain organoids—models that will help accelerate the understanding of neurological diseases.

“These flights will help us create brain organoid models that will accelerate understanding of a range of neurological diseases,” says Muotri. Rather than lengthy and expensive clinical trials, use of these models could help predetermine the efficacy of novel treatments for neurological disorders, including autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.