When people ask Dr. Karen Litwa what she does for a living, her response is unique.

“I say that I’m a brain builder,” she says through a smile.

Litwa, an assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, studies the mechanisms by which the brain cells form connections with one another to share information with each other.

In order to do that, her team grows mini brains in culture dishes.

“We can take a sample from a tissue bank, usually connective tissue from a skin biopsy, and make it into a pluripotent state, which just means it has the capacity to become any type of cell,” Litwa explained. “Then using different growth factors, we make these into little spheres that contain the neurons that we’re interested in studying.”

The mini brains that Litwa grows lack blood vessels and are only about two millimeters in diameter, but they are able to replicate the stages of human fetal brain development, specifically the outer cortex of the brain.

The mini brains recently grown by Litwa’s team originated with tissue samples from individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders, so the team could explore how their brains develop differently from people who don’t have autism.

Learn more about ECU research.