Salk Scientists Unlock New Secrets of Autism Using Human Stem Cells

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder whose mental, physical, social and emotional symptoms are highly variable from person to person. Because individuals exhibit different combinations and severities of symptoms, the concept of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now used to define the range of conditions.

There are many hypotheses for why autism occurs in humans (which some estimates suggest now affects around 3.5 million people in the US). Some of the disorders are thought to be at the cellular level, where nerve cells do not develop normally and organize properly in the brain, and some are thought to be at the molecular level where the building blocks in cells don’t function properly. Scientists have found these clues by using tools such as studying human genetics and animal models, imaging the brains of ASD patients, and looking at the pathology of ASD brains to see what has gone wrong to cause the disease.

Unfortunately, these tools alone are not sufficient to recreate all aspects of ASD. This is where cellular models have stepped in to help. Scientists are now developing human stem cell derived models of ASD to create “autism in a dish” and are finding that the nerve cells in these models show characteristics of these disorders.

Stem cell models of autism and ASD

We’ve reported on some of these studies in previous blogs. A group from UCSD lead by CIRM grantee Alysson Muotri used induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells to model non-syndromic autism (where autism is the primary diagnosis). The work has been dubbed the “Tooth Fairy Project” – parents can send in their children’s recently lost baby teeth which contain cells that can be reprogrammed into iPS cells that can then be turned into brain cells that exhibit symptoms of autism. By studying iPS cells from individuals with non-syndromic autism, the team found a mutation in the TRPC6 gene that was linked to abnormal brain cell development and function and is also linked to Rett syndrome – a rare form of autism predominantly seen in females.

Another group from Yale generated “mini-brains” or organoids derived from the iPS cells of ASD patients. They specifically found that ASD mini-brains had an increased number of a type of nerve cell called inhibitory neurons and that blocking the production of a protein called FOXG1 returned these nerve cells back to their normal population count.

Last week, a group from the Salk Institute in collaboration with scientists at UC San Diego published findings about another stem cell model for ASD that offers new clues into the early neurodevelopmental defects seen in ASD patients.  This CIRM-funded study was led by senior author Rusty Gage and was published last week in the Nature journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Unlocking clues to autism using patient stem cells

Gage and his team were fascinated by the fact that as many as 30 percent of people with ASD experience excessive brain growth during early in development. The brains of these patients have more nerve cells than healthy individuals of the same age, and these extra nerve cells fail to organize properly and in some cases form too many nerve connections that impairs their overall function.

To understand what is going wrong in early stages of ASD, Gage generated iPS cells from ASD individuals who experienced abnormal brain growth at an early age (their brains had grown up to 23 percent faster when they were toddlers compared to normal toddlers). They closely studied how these ASD iPS cells developed into brain stem cells and then into nerve cells in a dish and compared their developmental progression to that of healthy iPS cells from normal individuals.

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

Neurons derived from people with ASD (bottom) form fewer inhibitory connections (red) compared to those derived from healthy individuals (top panel). (Salk Institute)

They quickly observed a problem with neurogenesis – a term used to describe how brain stem cells multiply and create new nerve cells in the brain. Brain stem cells derived from ASD iPS cells displayed more neurogenesis than normal brain stem cells, and thus were creating an excess amount of nerve cells. The scientists also found that the extra nerve cells failed to form as many synaptic connections with each other, an essential process that allows nerve cells to send signals and form a functional network of communication, and also behaved abnormally and overall had less activity compared to healthy neurons. Interestingly, they saw fewer inhibitory neuron connections in ASD neurons which is contrary to what the Yale study found.

The abnormal activity observed in ASD neurons was partially corrected when they treated the nerve cells with a drug called IGF-1, which is currently being tested in clinical trials as a possible treatment for autism. According to a Salk news release, “the group plans to use the patient cells to investigate the molecular mechanisms behind IGF-1’s effects, in particular probing for changes in gene expression with treatment.”

Will stem cells be the key to understanding autism?

It’s clear that human iPS cell models of ASD are valuable in helping tease apart some of the mechanisms behind this very complicated group of disorders. Gage’s opinion is that:

“This technology allows us to generate views of neuron development that have historically been intractable. We’re excited by the possibility of using stem cell methods to unravel the biology of autism and to possibly screen for new drug treatments for this debilitating disorder.”

However, to me it’s also clear that different autism stem cell models yield different results, but these differences are likely due to which populations the iPS cells are derived from. Creating more cell lines from different ASD subpopulations will surely answer more questions about the developmental differences and differences in brain function seen in adults.

Lastly, one of the co-authors on the study, Carolina Marchetto, made a great point in the Salk news release by acknowledging that their findings are based on studying cells in a dish, not actual patient’s brains. However, Marchetto believes that these cells are useful tools for studying autism:

“It never fails to amaze me when we can see similarities between the characteristics of the cells in the dish and the human disease.”

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)

Rusty Gage and Carolina Marchetto. (Salk Institute)


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