Next Mental Illness Insights May Come from a Petri Dish, Not PeopleScientists often may wish they could uncover what went wrong in the brains of people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism — then have time to right it before much brain damage ensues.

Researchers are using genetic engineering and growth factors to reprogram the skin cells of patients with schizophrenia, autism, and other neurological disorders and grow them into brain cells in the laboratory.

Researchers using these new techniques can also detect inherent defects in how neurons develop or function. They can also more closely see and measure what environmental toxins or other factors prod neurons and synpases to misbehave in the petri dish.

With these “diseases in a dish” they also can test the effectiveness of drugs that can right missteps in development, or counter the harm of environmental insults.

One outgrowth of the research is to measure the impact psychiatric medications have on specific disorders. Not fully matured cultured neurons are taken from people who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, such as schizophrenia. Then a psychiatric drug is 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 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).

“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.

Researchers say that it’s not just the moment-to-moment regulation of dopamine and other neurochemicals that may be affecting the symptoms of a mental disorder. 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, 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,” says Gage.

Source: The Kavli Foundation