Chia Pet Neuroscience

So a few days ago, my friend Julia sent me a link to an article on Disability Scoop titled “Miniature Brains Reveal An Outsized Secret About Autism.” Because Julia knows my tastes in science. Always a quality trait in a friend. The only other thing in her message, besides the link, was: “Enjoy.”

In that spirit, I decided to fucking enjoy myself. Please read the article itself (it’s relatively brief) before reading my comments, as they won’t make much sense without context. That said, once you’ve read the article, my comments were written in response to things in the order that they appear in said article. And I have done my best to indicate sarcasm where it occurs, especially since oftentimes I’m being sarcastic about science that I don’t expect every reader to already know. That said, please enjoy your lovely selves.


  • When you’re looking for the origins of autism, it’s only natural to assume that you might be able to find said origins by growing miniature neuronal Chia Pets in your lab. Like, duh! Brains are just like any other organ; they don’t need to be part of an organism, inside some weird “body” thing, in order to perform their basic functional and developmental roles! That would be silly, and super inconvenient for scientists who like petri dishes full of cell growth media more than they like the actual people they’re supposedly researching. [this whole bullet point is sarcasm!]
  • “…[T]o rewind the clock to the brain’s earliest days of development.” I’m so glad someone’s finally focusing on those who are most impacted by teh autismz: autistic embryos. [also sarcasm]
    • Oh, wait. Sorry. I keep forgetting these “brains” were never attached to actual bodies, embryonic or otherwise…
    • Which means they like, never received, processed, or stored any sensory input ever?
    • Sorry, but I don’t think you get to pat yourself on the back for peering into the depths of early human embryonic development when your research included a total of zero embryos developing within zero uterus-type gestational environments.
    • TL;DR
      • A. There is no such thing as an autistic embryo/fetus, in case that wasn’t clear before, and
      • B. I’m gonna keep calling those model brain things “miniature neuronal Chia Pets” until someone manages to come up with a more accurate description of them.
    • fucking demons sneakily replacing all ur normate babies with horned autisms! [sarasm]
  • “Organoids”
    • *Emma stares into the camera like she’s on The Office*
  • Clusters. Of. Embryonic. Brain. Cells. Smaller. Than. One-Tenth. Of. An. Inch. Across.
  • “[T]he autistic brain” ranks pretty high on my list of phrases that drive me utterly bananas.
    • We are not a Borg collective, nor are we some kind of super ineffectual clone army.
    • And the pedant in me can’t help but also point out that, actually, even drones in a/the Borg collective and “identical” clone soldiers wouldn’t all exhibit the exact same brain structures! They all would have had different experiences and/or been exposed to different environmental variables!
    • Were literally any of these freaking neuroscientists actually listening during the lecture(s) explaining the “Fire together, wire together!” principle?! (Jesus Christ Superstar, I swear. Neuroscientists these days, you know?)
  • They believe their results indicate that The Autistic Brain “overproduces the brain cells that act to quiet the cacophony of neural activity in the brain.” Science fail. Science fail. Alert, alert, science fail.
    • Please stop reducing the role of GABAergic and/or inhibitory neurons to just “the things that make ur brain quiet! :D” Please. Stop. That is not how. Fucking brains work.
    • You get some extra fail for having come to a conclusion about neuronal activity (“too many quiet-making cell things!”) in autistic brains that makes basically zero behavioral/phenomenological sense.
    • Oh, plus you get EXTRA extra fail for ignoring the fact that a huge number of the most common comorbid diagnoses among autistic people are known to involve atypical GABA/glutamate levels that are the literal inverse of the GABA/glutamate imbalances your article describes. Epilepsy? Schizophrenia spectrum? ADHD? Yup. Yup. Yup. Oh, just go home.
  • “[A]n imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory neurons.”
    • Wowzers, what a conclusive, specific, detailed description of neurological difference [sarcasm]. If you want to read me complain more about this particularly egregious oversimplification of neurological excitation/inhibition, see my two posts about “Intense World Theory.”
  • I can’t believe nobody had ever thought of using miniature neuronal Chia Pets as model organisms before! [sarcasm]
    • I’m especially impressed with the way you boldly extrapolate your findings about Chia Pet GABAergic neuronal proliferation and apply them to the autistic brains of children and adults as well. [sarcasm]
    • Your experimental model clearly provides data that is generalizable to all stages of neurological development [more sarcasm], since GABA/glutamate signaling is:
      • 1. Definitely not shaped by pre- or postnatal environmental factors at all! [100% sarcasm]; and
      • 2. Also definitely not affected by any of the systemic neurochemical/hormonal changes that occur during human childhood and adolescence [prime, high-quality sarcasm].
  • Another hint on reading BrAiNsCiEnCeZ critically: If a neuroscientist (or geneticist, for that matter) ever claims to have “fixed” a complex neurological/cognitive Thing just by suppressing “a single gene,” there’s a really good chance that you don’t need to bother listening to anything else they say on the matter. See also: An article author/science person you’ve encountered sincerely likes behavioral genetics? DEAL. BREAKER.
  • I’m skipping over the next few positivist, pathologizing, vaguely eugenicist mini-crap-paragraphs because they’re not worth my time. Plus, I know there are a few TRUE GEMS waiting for me near the end of this…
  • Cool, cool, getting pluripotential cells from skin cells, big whoop, I’m bored.
  • Your. Autistic. Sample. Size. Is. Four.
    • yoursamplesizeis*F*O*U*R*
    • 4
    • four. BOYS.
    • They describe macrocephaly as “a unique characteristic typical of those with severe autism.” And, you know, determining which characteristics really define a high-prevalence, behavioral diagnostic category can be really tough. But you can’t go wrong as long as you focus on a trait that is consistent, diagnostically-relevant, and rare/nonexistent in the NT population–like “Having A Weirdly Big Head,” for example [sarcasm].
    • “Having A Weirdly Big Head” is a great choice [sarcasmz] because:
      • 1. Everyone who’s really autistic has a weird big head [whoa sarcasm];
      • 2. Having a weird big head qualifies you for an autism diagnosis [very sarcasm]; and
      • 3. While some neurotypical people might have heads that are objectively “big,” several research studies have confirmed that only autistic people exhibit weird big-headedness [peak sarcasm].
  • “To create a batch of typically-developing organoids, they used skin cells from the autism patients’ unaffected fathers.”
    • I actually laughed out loud when I first read this, and it will be funny to me forever. Forever funny. Forever.
    • “Do you need obviously, 100% NT control subjects for your autism research? Just recruit the parents of autistic children! They are all totes guaranteed to be super socially normal people who are not at all autistic.” [sarcasm]
  • Kudos to the researcher for clarifying that like, the cells they use aren’t completely pluripotent, and therefore they can’t actually produce all the tissues and structures that an actual brain would be made of…But like, I’m still waiting for the part where someone acknowledges that you can’t build, or “grow,” a decontextualized, disembodied brain, period.
  • I’m going to ask these people once, and only once: Slowly back away from the insulting computer/programming metaphors. Slowly. Back. Away.
  • “‘Sometimes you don’t see these things unless you look for them,’ she said in the interview.”
    • There are so many jokes I could make here. But I am so tired.
    • Though I imagine that it’s true: very few people would have looked at the state of autism science today and thought to themselves, “You know what this field needs? Miniature Chia Pet Models Of Embryonic Neuronal Growth Built On Three-Dimensional Scaffolding!”

Yeah, I’m just done here. That is all. I’m done with this thing. I have enjoyed myself, and now I am done.

(One last aside: Obviously, I have nothing against like, these kinds of research–those that either grow, or simulate the growth of, organs using three-dimensional scaffolding and pluripotent cells–in general. What I have a problem with is when researchers feel completely comfortable using this kind of research to make claims about entire groups of people diagnosed with one of the most diverse and socially-inflected “behavioral disorders” in existence.)


5 thoughts on “Chia Pet Neuroscience

  1. “To create a batch of typically-developing organoids, they used skin cells from the autism patients’ unaffected fathers.”

    This kills me. It just kills me. Remember when they did this before, too, in that study where they (not the same team, but, you know, “they”) were looking for de novo mutations contributing to autism, and the way they chose their de novo mutations for further investigation was by looking for differences between the autistic children’s genome’s and their non-autistic parents’….

    Only….without checking on whether those children’s grandparents were autistic or not.

    Because epidemic, you know.

    • I made like an inchoate wailing noise at this. The only thing worse than behavioral genetics overall is behavioral genetics when done by people who apparently know nothing about behavioral genetics? I was talking to a friend about this shit, and I also brought up the myriad experiements that have been done where researchers give the Autism Spectrum Quotient Quiz to entirely NT samples, and then extrapolate the correlations between NT-“autistic-ness” and who-knows-what-else they tested, and apply them to autistic people as “research on autism!”

      • When, oh when, will IRBs require that research proposals be preemptively mocked by autistic people with science backgrounds as a condition of approval?

  2. I emailed this to my thesis advisor because, except for your different writing voice, these are the same criticisms (at least about the science, maybe not the autism) he would’ve made had someone brought it to seminar.

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