Schizophrenia Treatment Being Revolutionized

Scientists recreate brain cells from skin cells to study schizophrenia safely

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Researchers are opening the door to being able to offer personalized treatment to people suffering from serious mental health disorders.

Just imagine...cells from your skin are turned into brain cells - your own - that can be used to offer you personalized treatment for serious mental health diseases. Sounds like Frankenstein, but just such a breakthrough has been discovered.

Scientists at Penn State University, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and other institutions have developed the method that has recreated a schizophrenic patient's own brain cells from skin cells. These "derived" brain cells can now be studied safely and effectively in a petri dish.

New promise for understanding and treating serious illness

This discovery opens the door to:

  • Understanding the biology of schizophrenia and other mysterious diseases including autism spectrum and bipolar disorders
  • Providing personalized medicine - customized treatments for individuals based on their own genetic and cellular information

Schizophrenia is defined by a combination of paranoid delusions, auditory hallucinations and diminished cognitive function. Nearly three million people in the United States suffer from the disease. Scientists have been trying to unravel the disease for many years. It is believed that schizophrenia is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Discovering personalized treatment options

Gong Chen, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at Penn State and one of the study's authors, said,  "Obviously, we don't want to remove someone's brain cells to experiment on, so recreating the patient's brain cells in a petri dish is the next best thing for research purposes,"

A number of frequently prescribed antipsychotic medications were administered to the cells to test the drugs' ability to improve how neurons communicate with neighboring cells.

Chen explained. "Using this method, we can figure out how a particular drug will affect that particular patient's brain cells, without needing the patient to try the drug, and potentially, to suffer the side effects. The patient can be his or her own guinea pig for the design of his or her own treatment, without having to be experimented on directly."

Gateway to new understanding

Lead author Fred Gage, Ph.D., a professor Salk's Laboratory of Genetics, explained that schizophrenia demonstrates many of the research challenges posed by complex psychiatric disorders. "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 it allows us to screen for drugs that may be effective in reversing it," Gage said.

When researchers compared the brain cells of schizophrenic patients to those of healthy individuals, distinct differences were revealed. Kristen Brennand, Ph.D., a Salk researcher and one of the study's authors, explained that compared with healthy neurons, brain cells from schizophrenic patients made fewer connections with each other.

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

Help in dispelling misunderstandings

Gage added that, for many years, mental illness has been thought of as a strictly social or environmental disease. "Many people believed that if affected individuals just worked through their problems, they could overcome them," he said. "But we are showing real biological dysfunctions in neurons that are independent of the environment."

The study

A team of researchers from various institutions worked collaboratively on this revolutionary breakthrough.

  • The team first took samples of skin cells from schizophrenic patients.
  • Using molecular-biology techniques, they reprogrammed these original skin cells to become unspecialized or stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which ares essentially a blank cells
  • After generating iPSCs from skin cells, the authors cultured them to become brain cells, or neurons
  • These neurons derived from schizophrenic patients were compared to the neurons created from the iPSCs of healthy individuals.
  • They found that the neurons generated from schizophrenic patients made fewer connections with each other than those from healthy individuals
  • A number of frequently prescribed antipsychotic medications were then administered to test the drugs' ability to improve how neurons communicate with neighboring cells.

The study will be published in a future edition of the journal Nature.

Review Date: 
April 22, 2011