Studying Mental Illness in a Dish

By Dr. Matthew Watson

No organ in the human body is as resistant to study as the brain. Whereas researchers can examine living cells from the liver, lung and heart, taking a biopsy of the brain is, for many reasons, more problematic.

The inability to watch living human brain cells in action has hampered scientists in their efforts to understand psychiatric disorders. But researchers have identified a promising new approach that may revolutionize the study and treatment of conditions such as schizophrenia, autism and bipolar dis­order. A team led by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., took skin cells from a patient with schizophrenia, turned them into adult stem cells and then grew those stem cells into neurons. The resulting tangle of brain cells gave neuroscientists their first real-time glimpse of human schizophrenia at the cellular level. Another team, from Stanford University, converted human skin cells directly into neurons without first stopping at the stem cell stage, potentially making the process more efficient. The groups published their results recently in Nature ( Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).


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