Annalee Newitz — What you’re looking at are neurons grown from a schizophrenic person. An incredible study, published today in Nature, reveals how scientists grew schizophrenic brain cells to understand the inner workings of this still-mysterious neurological disorder.
A team of scientists from research institutes across the US collaborated to conduct this first-of-a-kind experiment. Schizophrenia is known to be a genetic disease in the majority of cases, and the researchers drew their samples from the skin of four people with clear signs of genetic schizophrenia. Three were from families where one parent and all their siblings were also schizophrenic, and one had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 6. The scientists “reprogrammed” these cells to become stem cells, then neurons, creating small colonies of cells whose genetic profile exactly matches schizophrenic neurons.
Over a period of weeks, they watched the cells develop, testing them to see how they differed from a control group of cells. They already knew from previous studies that schizophrenic neurons don’t form many connections with other neurons, and indeed this was exactly what they found. Neural connections, which are electrical and chemical links between cells called synapses, allow your brain to form new memories, learn, and come up with new ideas. (You can see them in the fine threads between neurons in the pictures that illustrate this story.) But schizophrenic neurons don’t reach out to each other.
And the research team now has a much better picture of why this is. Partly it’s because schizophrenic neurons are low on proteins that help build those connections. But the researchers also found unusual behavior in genes needed to regulate two cell processes (called “signalling pathways”) that help neurons communicate with each other. What it all boils down to is that schizophrenic neurons suffer from a number of problems, all of which make it harder for them to create the kind of dense neural network your brain needs.