Skin cells from four people with schizophrenia have been successfully reprogrammed into an embryonic-like state and then transformed into brain cells. The research, published in Nature, offers scientists a novel way to study the causes of schizophrenia and the effects of medication on patients.
The team from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California found that transformed neurons from people with schizophrenia made fewer nerve connections than similar cells from healthy individuals. The cells' reduced 'neural connectivity' suggests one biological explanation for this neurological disorder.
'This is the first time that a complex mental disease has been modelled in live human cells', said Professor Fred Gage who headed the study. The experiments pave the way for other mental health conditions to be modelled 'in a dish' by similarly reprogramming patients' skin cells to embryonic-like cells and then growing these into different types of neuronal cell.
The work will help in the study of mental health conditions whose underlying biological mechanisms are often difficult to unravel. Environmental factors are known to contribute to these diseases. But Dr Kristen Brennand, who is first author of the study, suggests that 'by growing neurons in a dish we can take the environment out of the equation and start focusing on the underlying biological problems'.
The technique can also be used to study the effects of medication on patients' own cells. Salk researchers exposed the neurons to five different antipsychotic drugs, and found that the medication loxapine greatly improved the neural connectivity of all patients' neurons, while the other drugs improved the connectivity in at least one patient's cells.
Professor Gage hopes the approach will lead to individualised treatments for patients by helping them establish which drugs are most likely to help them. He said: 'Most psychiatric patients may try many drugs before they find one that works. This may circumvent that process by enabling individualised treatments with the best drug for them'.
In an interview with ABC News, Professor Vaughan Carr, head of the Schizophrenia Research Institute in Australia, said the research is still in its early days as cells have been grown from only four patients, but believes that it has the potential to 'become a very useful technology'.