April 14, 2014. A new study published online April 1 in Molecular Psychiatry by Kristen Brennand and Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, gives researchers a quicker, easier way to study stem cells from patients with schizophrenia and other brain disorders. Rather than trying to convert skin cells to stem cells and then to neurons, the researchers stopped at an intermediate stage called "neural precursor cells." They report that they can produce many of these cells and that they are very similar in some respects to neurons.
The discovery several years ago that a patient’s skin cells could be converted into neurons by growing the cells under very specific conditions in a dish was poised to provide researchers with an unlimited supply of neurons, each with the patient’s exact genetic makeup. Unfortunately, the reality has been more difficult—coaxing the cells to become neurons has proven to be a very labor-intensive process.
In their report, Brennand and colleagues compare the intermediate cells generated from schizophrenia patients to those from healthy controls. The researchers found that the cells from patients have abnormal levels of many proteins, altered abilities to migrate, and increased levels of cellular stress—all features that seem to be present in the brains of people with the illness. (For more details, see the related news story.)—Allison A. Curley.