Stem cells from schizophrenics show how neurons make fewer connections

Schizophrenia is a complex, baffling disease for which there are some treatments, but no cure and no definite answers regarding its cause. To get some questions answered about this brain disease suffered by an estimated 3 million people in the United States alone, researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies decided to study the brain cells of those who suffer from schizophrenia. But they did it by taking skin samples and creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the potential to become any kind of cell in the body. They then turned these adult stem cells into, essentially, brain cells in a dish. That way, they can see how cells react to different drugs, and how viruses spread, without subjecting the patient to side-effects.

Here's what they found. First, the neurons created by schizophrenic patients' own stem cells made fewer connections with each other than normal brain cells would. Second, the anti-schizophrenic drug Loxapine appears to work best, restoring neuronal connectivity in the iPSC cells from all patients.

"This is the first time that a complex mental disease has been modeled in live human cells," lead author Fred Gage said in a news release. "This model not only affords us the opportunity to look at live neurons from schizophrenia patients and healthy individuals to understand more about the disease mechanism, but also to screen for drugs that may be effective in reversing it."

The advantage of doing all this in a dish is to separate environmental factors from biological ones. It is commonly thought that a combination of the two causes schizophrenia.

"Nobody knows how much the environment contributes to the disease," Kristen Brennand, one of the study's authors, said in a news release. "By growing neurons in a dish, we can take the environment out of the equation, and start focusing on the underlying biological problems."

- read the Salk Institute release
- Discover Magazine's blog has a report
- and so does The Independent of London
- here's the abstract in Nature