Home Susan Yerkes Brains in a dish – New tools to understand brain function

Brains in a dish – New tools to understand brain function


“Brains in a dish” may sound like something out of a zombie movie, but it’s far from science fiction. It’s a very cool tool to examine the brain. We’re not talking Frankenstein here – these are very small “cerebral organoids,” enabling new discoveries.

I heard about this from Jenny Hsieh, a brilliant stem-cell biologist and the leader of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s new Brain Health Consortium. Last year, Hsieh brought her entire lab and multiple projects to UTSA from the prestigious UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas – a huge coup for our local institution.

Brain research is a really big deal these days. While we know a lot about how brains in mice work, the human counterpart is harder to study. Hsieh’s team takes blood samples from patients with a wide range of brain disorders. The researchers can actually reprogram some cells to become “pluripotent” stem cells, which can become brain cells — and grow small clumps of an individual’s brain tissue in petri dishes.

Hsieh aims to develop “personalized screening models for genetic brain disorders.” She hopes to use them to predict or create new and better medicines or treatments to help heal such abnormalities in the future.

What happens in laboratories like these could have a direct impact on all our lives.

“There are many folks in San Antonio with family members or friends who have some sort of (neurological) disease, from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s, across the spectrum to schizophrenia and autism,” said Bernard Arulanandam, UTSA’s interim vice president for research. “Here in San Antonio, the fact that both UTSA and UT Health San Antonio are working to improve lives, often in a highly collaborative manner, is very important.”

In a literal meeting of the minds, UTSA’s consortium facilitates cooperation between teams from various advanced research areas at the school, from science and engineering to genetics, biology and behavioral aspects of brain health. Spread across different buildings and both campuses, the researchers bring innovative thinking to the table when they collaborate.

“We pull people out of their silos,” Hsieh said. “Traditionally, scientists work alone, but consortiums are the way science is going.”

UTSA is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, showcasing a cutting-edge educational institution that grew out of a small, largely commuter college. A couple of decades ago, when UTSA leaders announce they aimed to be recognized as a “top-tier” university, it prompted subtle eye-rolling among skeptics. In the interim, the major news has focused on the downtown campus and Roadrunner sports.

So, when Hsieh recently addressed the Texas Women’s Forum, I was surprised to hear that today at UTSA she’s leading a consortium of 40 top brain scientists. It turns out the professor was shocked when she got the offer, too.

“Extremely surprised,” she told me. “I didn’t know about all the growth at UTSA. This was an incredible opportunity. I’m very optimistic about (President Taylor Eighmy’s) new leadership and plans.”

“Help me spread the word of excitement and promise,” she urged the audience during the talk.

The more I’ve learned about Hsieh’s efforts, and all the other incredible initiatives in brain research and treatment in San Antonio, from UT Health’s Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases to work at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and the Department of Defense, the more hope I see for the future.

I consider this good news; glad to pass it along.



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