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Stem Cells of Schizophrenics Could Shed Light on Causes of Mental Illness

  • Jessica Berman

Scientists say a new method for recreating the brain cells of patients with schizophrenia could shed new light on the cause of the disabling mental disorder, which is marked by paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations.

Schizophrenia’s cause remains a mystery, and researchers hoping to gain a better understanding of the disorder have used genetic technology to recreate a schizophrenic patient’s own brain cells, or neurons.

Gong Chen, a neurobiologist in the Department of Biology at Pennsylvania State University, worked with researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, to create the cells.

Chen says scientists used molecular biology techniques to reprogram the skin cells of schizophrenic patients to become stem cells. These unspecialized master cells can be coaxed with growth factors and other chemicals to become any type of cell in the body.

Researchers then cultured the stem cells in a petri dish to become neurons. These brain cells from schizophrenic patients were then compared to brain cells derived from the skin cells of healthy volunteers.

Chen used electrophysiology techniques to test the function of the stem cell-derived neurons.

Chen says that at the individual neuron level, there was little apparent difference between the two groups of brain cells. But researchers discovered a distinct difference in how they behaved when grouped as a circuit. When compared to healthy neurons, the neurons generated from schizophrenic patients made fewer connections with each other. "In the circuit level, when we look at a massive number of neurons, then the neuronal connectivity is indeed decreased," he said.

An estimated one percent of the world’s population suffers from schizophrenia, the most persistently debilitating of the major mental health conditions. There are anti-psychotic medications to treat the condition, but they are frequently ineffective.

Chen says the Salk investigators tried a number of anti-psychotic compounds and found that one of the drugs improved the connectivity and communication among brain cells derived from the schizophrenic patients.

Chen believes that using living cells to learn more about the biological mechanisms of diseases like schizophrenia will help researchers develop better treatments. "We think understanding that it maybe is not (an) individual neuronal problem but rather a circuit level problem will help us to thinking about what kinds of strategy to take to combat this kind of disease," he said.

Researchers say the method of growing neurons in a dish will aid in the study of other mental and developmental conditions, including autism and a type of chronic depression called bipolar disorder.

Chen says his group’s groundbreaking work with recreated neurons is an example of personalized medicine in which doctors will someday be able to prescribe effective treatments based on their patients’ unique biological make-up.

An article describing the creation of brain cells to better understand schizophrenia is published in the journal Nature.