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Study provides a window into the brains of people with schizophrenia

An international team of scientists has re-created human brain systems in the laboratory, allowing them to pinpoint the different responses to brain activity between patients with schizophrenia and unaffected people.

The study was co-led by the head of QIMR Berghofer’s Neurogenomics Laboratory, Dr Guy Barry, and researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the United States.

Dr Barry said the team took skin cells from patients with schizophrenia and reprogrammed them into stem cells using cutting-edge stem cell technology.

“We then turned these reprogrammed stem cells into neurons, which are the cells responsible for passing information through the pathways in the brain,” Dr Barry said.

“The cells essentially formed a functioning mini-brain system in a petri dish.”

The scientists activated the cells to mimic the stimulation that happens in a real brain. They then used next-generation gene sequencing to investigate how the brain cells from the two groups of people responded.

“There was 90 per cent less response to activity in the brain cells of people with schizophrenia than in the brain cells of unaffected controls,” Dr Barry said.

“What this shows is that in people who don’t have schizophrenia, the brain cells have a properly functioning communication pathway, allowing the transfer of information.

“In people with schizophrenia the information stops somewhere along the communication pathway. In other words, the brain signals simply don’t get through.

“Our laboratory experiments closely mimicked what we see in patients with schizophrenia, which is that during episodes, there is a dampening of the responses in the brain and the transfer of information is hampered.”

The study is the first time that researchers have investigated in a petri dish the different responses to brain activity between patients with schizophrenia and unaffected people.

Dr Barry said now the team had created an experimental model that showed dramatically different changes between control and schizophrenia neurons, they could use it to test potential new treatments.

“Because this experimental model accurately recreates and mimics the human brain, it is likely to allow us to better test potential new drugs,” he said.

“It will also allow us to understand more about the biology of this debilitating psychiatric illness.”

The study has been published today in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.