A commercially available line of neurons generated from induced stem cells would serve as a good control for autism research, according to a study published 16 January in Psychopharmacology1. Characterizing these neurons in detail shows that they express most of the genes linked to autism and look like typical, albeit immature, cells.
Induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, are skin or blood cells reverted to a state from which they can become any cell in the body. Researchers can use the technique to turn cells from people with a neuropsychiatric disorder into neurons. They can then compare the neurons with those from controls to gain understanding of the disorder.
But scientists must first characterize the properties of typical stem-cell-derived neurons. In the new study, researchers looked in detail at iCell Neurons, a commercially available line of neurons derived from iPSCs, to see how similar these are to neurons in the body.
The researchers looked at which genes are expressed in these neurons and when, and compared the patterns with those described for typical neurons. The iCell Neurons best resemble neurons from the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in social behavior and emotion, the study found. This may make them particularly good models for autism. For example, researchers could delete autism-linked genes from these cells, the researchers say.
Of 328 genes that have been linked to autism, 213 are expressed in the iCell Neurons, the study found. The cells also show typical function in pathways that regulate the strength of signaling and communication across neuronal junctions— both of which have been implicated in autism.