New Cell Study Pulls Curtain on Schizophrenia, Autism

New research funded by the National Institutes of Health used 3-D collections of brain tissue grown from human cells to study the brain’s star-shaped astrocytes. (Image credit: Sergiu Pasca, Stanford University)

BETHESDA, Md. (CN) – It’s been two years since Stanford neurobiologists published a method for converting adult skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells that could then be grown into 3-D clusters of brain cells.

The National Institutes of Health reported Wednesday that another crop of scientists have been studying the growth of star-shaped brain cells known as human cortical spheroids (hCSs) in these cell clusters.

Their findings, published in Neuron, confirm that the maturation of lab-grown cells largely mimics that of cells taken directly from brain tissue during very early life, a critical time for brain growth.

Because of the critical role this process plays in normal brain development, further study of lab-grown hCSs could uncover the underlying developmental biology at the core of various neurological and mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism.

“The hCS system makes it possible to replay astrocyte development from any patient,” said Ben Barres, a Stanford professor of neurobiology who co-led the 2015 study, as quoted the NIH in a Wednesday article.

“That’s huge,” Barres added. “There’s no other way one could ever do that without this method.”

Steven Sloan, a student in Stanford’s MD/Ph.D. program, led the astrocyte-comparison study published in the latest issue of Neuron.

“The team grew the hCSs for 20 months, one of the longest-ever studies of lab-grown human brain cells,” according to the report by the NIH, which funded the research in part through its National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Jill Morris, who directs the NINDS, said the work by Sloan’s team “addresses a significant gap in human brain research by providing an invaluable technique to investigate the role of astrocytes in both normal development and disease.”

David Panchision, program director at the National Institute of Mental Health, which also helped fund the study, also spoke to the study’s importance.

“Since astrocytes make up a greater proportion of brain cells in humans than in other species, it may reflect a greater need for astrocytes in normal human brain function, with more significant consequences when they don’t work correctly,” Panchision added.

One point that the researchers emphasized, however, is that hCSs are only a model and lack many features of real brains.

“Moreover, certain genes that are active in fully mature astrocytes never switched on in the hCS-grown astrocytes, which they could conceivably do if the cells had more time to develop,” the NIH article says. “To address this question, the researchers now hope to identify ways to produce mature brain cells more quickly. hCSs could also be used to scrutinize precisely what causes astrocytes to change over time and to screen drugs that might correct any differences that occur in brain disease.”

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