Investigators at the Scripps Research Institute are making brain waves in the field of neuroscience. Until now, neuroscience research has largely relied on a variety of animal models to understand the complexities of various brain or neuronal diseases. While beneficial for many reasons, animal models do not always allow scientists to understand the precise mechanism of neuronal dysfunction, and studies done in animals can often be difficult to translate to humans. The work done by Kristin Baldwin’s group, however, is revolutionizing this field by trying to re-create this complexity in a dish.
One of the primary hurdles that scientists have had to overcome in studying neuronal diseases, is the impressive diversity of neuronal cell types that exist. The exact number of neuronal subtypes is unknown, but scientists estimate the number to be in the hundreds.
While neurons have many similarities, such as the ability to receive and send information via chemical cues, they are also distinctly specialized. For example, some neurons are involved in sensing the external environment, whereas others may be involved in helping our muscles move. Effective medical treatment for neuronal diseases is contingent on scientists being able to understand how and why specific neuronal subtypes do not function properly.
In a study in the journal Nature, partially funded by CIRM, the scientists used pairs of transcription factors (proteins that affect gene expression and cell identity), to turn skin stem cells into neurons. These cells both physically looked like neurons and exhibited characteristic neuronal properties, such as action potential generation (the ability to conduct electrical impulses). Surprisingly, the team also found that they were able to generate neurons that had unique and specialized features based on the transcription factors pairs used.
The ability to create neuronal diversity using this method indicates that this protocol could be used to recapitulate neuronal diversity outside of the body. In a press release, Dr. Baldwin states:
“Now we can be better genome detectives. Building up a database of these codes [transcription factors] and the types of neurons they produce can help us directly link genomic studies of human brain disease to a molecular understanding of what goes wrong with neurons, which is the key to finding and targeting treatments.”
These findings provide an exciting and promising tool to more effectively study the complexities of neuronal disease. The investigators of this study have made their results available on a free platform called BioGPS in the hopes that multiple labs will delve into the wealth of information they have opened up. Hopefully, this system will lead to more rapid drug discovery for disease like autism and Alzheimer’s