Reprograming Skin Cells Into Brain Cells

Using skin cells from patients with mental disorders, scientists are creating brain cells that are now providing extraordinary insights into schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

For many poorly understood mental disorders, such as schizophrenia or autism, scientists often wish they could turn back the clock to uncover what has gone wrong in the brain. Now thanks to recent developments in the lab, this is coming true.

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Joll...

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Researchers are using genetic engineering and growth factors to reprogram the skin cells of patients and grow them into brain cells. In the lab under careful watch, investigators can detect inherent defects in how neurons develop or function, or see what environmental toxins or other factors prod them to misbehave in the Petri dish. With these “diseases in a dish” they can also test the effectiveness of drugs that can right missteps in development, or counter the harm of environmental insults.

“It’s quite amazing that we can replicate a psychiatric disease in a petri dish,” says neuroscientist Fred Gage, a professor of genetics at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies. “This allows us to identify subtle changes in the functioning of neuronal circuits that we never had access to before.”