A New Window to Study Mental Illness: Stem Cells Converted to Brain Cells

Study by Stewart A. Anderson, M.D., expert on schizophrenia and autism
Study by Dr. Stewart Anderson

Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Scientific Council Member Stewart A. Anderson, M.D., co-led a study in which stem cells—cells that are capable of differentiating into a broad range of cell types—were influenced to produce brain cells known to contribute to the development of schizophrenia, autism and other neurological illnesses. The model cell system Dr. Anderson and his collaborators developed made it possible to study normal and abnormal brain development. Their findings were published online on May 2, 2013 in Cell Stem Cell.

The research team reproduced brain cells called cortical interneurons that control the electrical firing of brain circuits. "Interneurons act like an orchestra conductor, directing other excitatory brain cells to fire in synchrony," said Dr. Anderson, a research psychiatrist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "However, when interneurons malfunction, the synchrony is disrupted, and seizures or mental disorders can result."
"Unlike, say, liver diseases, in which researchers can biopsy a section of a patient's liver, neuroscientists cannot biopsy a living patient's brain tissue," Dr. Anderson went on to say. Hence it is important to produce a cell culture model of brain tissue for studying neurological diseases. Significantly, the human-derived cells in the current study also "wire up" in circuits with other types of brain cells taken from mice, when cultured together. Those interactions, he added, allowed the study team to observe cell-to-cell signaling that occurs during forebrain development.
The groundbreaking work with this new stem cell technology opens a new frontier to study the brain’s development and identify what malfunctions cause the manifestation of mental illness.