Petri dish may hold new findings for mental health treatment

Petri dish may hold new findings for mental health treatment

By Liz Lockhart

The skin cells of patients with a range of neurological disorders are being reprogrammed using genetic engineering and growth factors.  The cells are being grown into brain cells in the laboratory. 

This research may sound like the aim of a scientist in a Hollywood film but it is a reality as researchers attempt to better understand and treat mental illness.

This study is being undertaken by neuroscientist Fred Gage, a professor of genetics at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and member of the executive committee of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind (KIBM).

The researchers used these new techniques to detect inherent defects in how neurons develop or function.  They can also see more closely and measure which environmental toxins or other factors prod neurons and synapses to misbehave in a petri dish.

By observing these ‘diseases in a dish’ they have the ability to test the effectiveness of drugs that can put right ‘mis-steps' in development, or counter the harm of environmental assaults.

One branch of this research is to measure the impact that psychiatric medications have on specific disorders.  Immature cultured neurons are taken from individuals who have a diagnosis of a mental disorder such as schizophrenia.  A psychiatric drug is then applied to these cells and the result is studied.

‘One surprise is that neurons appear to undergo structural changes when they are given neuropsychiatric drugs’ says Fred Gage of the Salk Institute.

‘This is unexpected, as since the 1970’s companies have developed neuropsychiatric drugs on the premise that you modulate mood by regulating the amount of chemical signals available in the brain.  These chemical signals are called neurotransmitters, and consequently the drugs have focused on modulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin,’ Gage added.

It is not just the moment-to-moment regulation of dopamine and other neurochemicals that may be affecting the symptoms of a mental disorder, researchers say.  It may be, more importantly, how these synapses are structured and interact with one another.

‘As we accumulate models for these diseases, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, depression and autism, we are going to be able to explore if there are really differences between them that exist on a cellular or gene expression level,’ Gage concluded.

Source: The Kavli Foundation 

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