Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have demonstrated the use of stem-cell-derived “mini-brains” to detect harmful side effects of a common drug on the developing brain. Mini-brains are miniature human brain models, developed with human cells and barely visible to the human eye, whose cellular mechanisms mimic those of the developing human brain.
The scientists, who will publish their findings on February 21 in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, used the mini-brains to determine that the common antidepressant paroxetine suppresses the growth of synapses, or connection points between neurons, and leads to significant decreases in an important support-cell population. Paroxetine is sold under the brand names Paxil and Seroxat, among others.
Paroxetine, which can cross the placenta in pregnant women, currently comes with a warning against use in early pregnancy, largely due to a known risk of heart and lung defects. Some epidemiological studies also have suggested that paroxetine raises the risk of autism. The new findings are likely to heighten concerns about the effects of this drug, and others in its class, on the developing brain.