In a breakthrough that holds significant promise for early diagnosis and better treatment of psychiatric illness, researchers have for the first time used neurons derived from human stem cells to predict the cardinal features of a psychiatric illness, such as psychosis and cognitive deficits in patients with schizophrenia.
The study’s lead author, Stephanie Page, explained: “We studied physiological characteristics of stem cell-derived neurons and determined which neurons predicted meaningful clinical features of the disorder in actual patients, the living donors of the cells. We found a pattern of cell activity that correlated with the degree of psychosis in the donors. We found another pattern of activity that predicted with almost absolute accuracy the level of cognitive impairment of the donors. These clinical features, psychotic symptoms and cognitive deficits, are the cardinal manifestations of schizophrenia.”
“When we ran the data, we were genuinely amazed to see the strength of the correlations between cell physiology and schizophrenia symptoms,” Maher said. “As much as we believed in the translational potential of stem cell derived models, we could not imagine that the activity of these cells in a dish would so faithfully predict the complex behavior of the people who donated them.”
Caveat emptor: the study was small and while revolutionary, should yet be repliated and followed up my numerous other studies.
The study’s participants were primarily young adult volunteers—13 individuals who had both high genome risk for schizophrenia and a clinical diagnosis of the disease, along with 15 neurotypical individuals with low-risk. The subjects were extensively screened by obtaining medical, psychiatric and neurological histories, physical examinations, developmental histories, MRI scans, and genome-wide genotyping.