Eyes Are the Windows to the Soul; Skin Is a Window to the Brain

A personalized source of stem cells could help find safer, more effective treatments for mental disorders.

By Valerie Ross|Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Some might call skin the unsung hero of organs. It provides waterproofing, mediates sensation, guards against germs, and—as if that’s not enough—now researchers believe it may serve as a valuable repository of brain cells.

Last spring, scientists at the Salk Institute in California announced the creation of a technique for transforming simple skin cells scraped from patients with schizophrenia into functional neurons, a major step toward more personalized, noninvasive approaches to drug testing. “Psychiatrists give patients first line, second line, third line drugs, hoping that one will work,” says Salk neuroscientist Fred Gage, who led the research. Pre-screening drugs on patient-derived cells could increase the odds of picking the right drug from the beginning.

After collecting skin cells from people with and without schizophrenia, Gage and team genetically reprogrammed the cells to become pluripotent stem cells, with the youthful ability to give rise to any of the more than 200 cell types in the body. From there, the blank-slate cells were bathed in a biochemical solution designed to mimic the developmental conditions of a brain cell. A month later, the cells from the healthy volunteers looked nearly identical to conventional brain cells, while the cells from the schizophrenic patients were smaller and formed fewer connections, hinting at the physical root of the disease.

In further tests, the diseased neurons responded in petri dishes to five schizophrenia drugs. One common medication, loxapine, boosted the number of connections among the cells, providing a window into how the medication might work in the brain.

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