Cultures and cures: neurodiversity and brain organoids

BMC Med Ethics. 2021 May 17;22(1):61. doi: 10.1186/s12910-021-00627-1.


Background: Research with cerebral organoids is beginning to make significant progress in understanding the etiology of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Brain organoid models can be grown from the cells of donors with ASD. Researchers can explore the genetic, developmental, and other factors that may give rise to the varieties of autism. Researchers could study all of these factors together with brain organoids grown from cells originating from ASD individuals. This makes brain organoids unique from other forms of ASD research. They are like a multi-tool, one with significant versatility for the scope of ASD research and clinical applications. There is hope that brain organoids could one day be used for precision medicine, like developing tailored ASD drug treatments.

Main body: Brain organoid researchers often incorporate the medical model of disability when researching the origins of ASD, especially when the research has the specific aim of potentially finding tailored clinical treatments for ASD individuals. The neurodiversity movement-a developmental disability movement and paradigm that understands autism as a form of natural human diversity-will potentially disagree with approaches or aims of cerebral organoid research on ASD. Neurodiversity advocates incorporate a social model of disability into their movement, which focuses more on the social, attitudinal, and environmental barriers rather than biophysical or psychological deficits. Therefore, a potential conflict may arise between these perspectives on how to proceed with cerebral organoid research regarding neurodevelopmental conditions, especially ASD.

Conclusions: Here, we present these perspectives and give at least three initial recommendations to achieve a more holistic and inclusive approach to cerebral organoid research on ASD. These three initial starting points can build bridges between researchers and the neurodiversity movement. First, neurodiverse individuals should be included as co-creators in both the scientific process and research communication. Second, clinicians and neurodiverse communities should have open and respectful communication. Finally, we suggest a continual reconceptualization of illness, impairment, disability, behavior, and person.

Keywords: Autism; Bioethics; Brain organoids; Disability; Neurodiversity; Research.

Publication types

  • Practice Guideline
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / genetics
  • Autistic Disorder*
  • Brain
  • Humans
  • Organoids