Studying mental illnesses involves complex brain-monitoring technology to watch how neurons and large-scale brain components are functioning or malfunctioning. But researchers are increasingly getting out of their patients’ heads, monitoring brain cells in petri dishes instead. This is possible with stem cells, and it could yield plenty of new avenues for psychiatric research.

Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind in San Diego are using skin cells from patients with schizophrenia, autism and other disorders, and producing induced pluripotent stem cells. These cells are then induced to become neurons, which are grown in a lab so the neuroscientists can monitor the cells’ development or test potential new drugs.

Initial studies using this method show that the neurons of schizophrenics look similar to normal neurons, but they have different synaptic connections. And it appears that some psychiatric drugs cause physical changes in neurons, an unexpected finding.

Neuroscientists Fred (Rusty) Gage and Anirvan Ghosh are both working on “disease in a dish” research, hoping to unveil the genetic basis underlying various mental illnesses. They describe their work in an interview with the Kavli Foundation, which supports their work; go here to read a transcript of the interview.

For now, the research has left the neurons to form connections unimpeded — they have not been induced to become specific neuronal subtypes, like dopamine neurons or cortical neurons. But future work will attempt to form those specific types so that their interactions can be studied — for instance, how dopamine neurons interface with the substantia nigra region of the brain, which affects balance and movement and is related to the development of Parkinson’s disease. Gage said that type of work would require some other technological advances, perhaps microfluidic chambers that will isolate different neurons from each other and regulate how their synapses form.

Without the stem cells in a petri dish, monitoring how human neurons grow and connect would otherwise be impossible, the researchers say. And understanding that development can go a long way toward treating mental disorders — not to mention understanding the physiological connections that define what it means to be human.

Kavli Foundation