Human Brain Cells Made in the Lab that Grow in the Mouse Brain

The laboratory of Arnold Kriegstein, who serves as the director of the Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UC San Francisco has made a vitally important type of brain cell from human pluripotent stem cells that smoothly integrates into the brains of laboratory animals. Such a discovery could potentially provide cells that could treat epileptics, Parkinson’s disease or even Alzheimer’s disease.

Medial ganglionic eminence (MGE) cells are a unique type of progenitor cell in the developing brain that guides cell and axon migration. The MGE is located between the thalamus and the caudate nucleus in the developing brain and it facilitates tangential cell migration during embryonic development in the brain.

In the developing brain, cells move radially, along special glial cells that act as tracts for the migrating cells, or tangentially between the radial glial cells. Those cells that move tangentially (perpendicular to the radial glial cells) are specially designated to form GABAminergic neurons; that is neurons that use gamma-amino-butyric acid as their neurotransmitter. However, the MGE also contributes cells to the basal ganglia, which helps control voluntary movement, and guides those axons that grow from the thalamus into the cerebral cortex, or, conversely, those axons that grow from the cerebral cortex to the thalamus. The MGE is a transient structure, and after one year of age, the MGE disappears.

medial ganglionic eminence

Making MGE cells from pluripotent stem cells has been one of the holy grails of developmental neurobiology. Now Kirgstein’s laboratory has succeeded in doing just that.   By subjecting human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells to a complex and extensive differentiation procedure, Kirgstein and his coworkers succeeded in producing large quantities of MGE progenitors that readily matured into forebrain interneurons.  They treated pluripotent stem cells with several growth factors, but more importantly, they timed the delivery of these factors to shape their developmental path.  By conducting neurophysiological experiments on the cells as they differentiated them, Kirgstein and coworkers discovered that they could effectively determine if they had properly derived GABAminergic interneurons.  Jiadong Chen in Kirgsteins’s laboratory showed that the MGE-like progenitors formed proper synapses or connections with other neurons and responded appropriately when stimulated.  Also, as the interneurons matured into more adult-like interneurons, their neurophysiology became more adult-like.  

When grown in the laboratory in culture or when injected into the brains of mice, these MGE-like cells developed into GABAergic interneuron subtypes that displayed the properties of mature GABAminergic neurons.  Also, the cells kept these properties for up to 7 months, and therefore, faithfully mimicked endogenous human neural development.

When injected into mouse brains, the MGE-like progenitors integrated into the brain and formed connections with existing cells.  According to Kirgstein, this property of these cells and their behavior in living tissue makes them prime candidates to test interneuron malfunction that is characteristic of human diseases.  They might also provide material to treat patients who suffer from neurological diseases that affect interneuron function.

According to Kirgstein, “We think that this one type of cell may be useful in treating several types of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders in a targeted way.”

In earlier work, Kirgstein implanted mouse MGE cells into the spinal cord of mice that suffered from neuropathic pain.  The implanted cells reduced the pain of those mice, suggesting that they can be used to treat other neurological conditions such a spasticity, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

The first author of this paper, Cory Nicholas said, “The hope is that we can deliver these cells to various places within the nervous system that have been overactive and that they will functionally integrate and provide regulated inhibition.”

A Model System for A Devastating Childhood Disease

A Japanese research team from Fukuoka, Japan, specifically from the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Fukuoka, Japan, have used induced pluripotent stem cell technology to make neurons from human patients who suffer from a rare, devastating condition known as Dravet syndrome as a model system.

Dravet syndrome (DS) causes difficult to control seizures within the first year or two of life and later causes cognitive deficits and autistic traits. Dravet’s syndrome is caused by genetic alterations in the SCN1A gene, which encodes the α-subunit of the voltage-gated sodium channel.

DS is very rare – 1/30,000 children, but the mutation is typically not inherited from either parent, but occurs spontaneously in the baby’s cells during development. The best model systems to date are genetically engineered mice, but the differences between human and mouse brains limits the usefulness of this model system.

To make a better model system, workers from the laboratory of Shinichi Hirose took skin biopsy samples from a DS patient, and converted those skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which were then differentiated into neurons. In particular, the neurons that malfunction in DS patients are GABAminergic neurons, and by differentiating DS iPSCs into GABAminergic neurons, Hirose’s laboratory made a model system for DS patients that could be grown in a laboratory culture dish.

Hirose explained their results this way: “From research in mice we believed that SCN1A mutations affect GABAminergic neurons in the forebrain from signaling properly. From the human neurons we also found that GABAminergic neurons were affected by DS, especially during intense stimulation. These patient-specific cell provide an unparalleled insight into the mechanism behind DS and a unique platform for drug development.”

Perhaps such experiments could eventually lead to regenerative treatments for DS patients as well.