In a new study, researchers observed the behavior of cultured cells taken from patients with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, to gain a better understanding of abnormal nerve connections in the brain.

The team discovered a strong link between the findings in the cultured cells — grown outside the body in a controlled environment — and the brain images taken of the same human participants.

“The findings are important, because if the health of cells in culture reflects the health of the same cells in a human brain, we may be able to create a better model for studying psychotic disorders,” said the study’s senior author, Bruce M. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of McLean Hospital’s Program for Neuropsychiatric Research (PNPR). McLean is the psychiatric hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Cohen said such a model could give researchers a greater capacity to identify genetic and biochemical targets in the brain.

For the study, Cohen and his colleagues, including first author Donna L. McPhie, PhD, director of the Cellular Neuropsychiatry Laboratory in the PNPR, drew on studies demonstrating that altered pathways of brain development can be found in most cases of schizophrenia and that poor connections and “leaks” in signaling between nerve cells are a feature of many psychotic disorders.

A substance known as myelin is produced by certain cells (oligodendrocytes) and serves as a kind of insulation to prevent these leaks. In previous studies, myelin was found to be reduced in the brain of patients with schizophrenia.

Based on these previous findings, Cohen and his colleagues drew from their storehouse of cell lines they had obtained from patients with psychiatric disorders. These samples were reprogrammed from skin cells into brain-like cells in the laboratory.

The reprogrammed cell lines, taken from both ill and healthy patients, produced nerve cells and support cells called glia, including oligodendrocytes, in lab cultures. Further investigation of these cells revealed significant abnormalities in the development of oligodendrocytes grown from subjects with psychotic disorders.

The researchers also found a strong link between the number of oligodendrocytes in culture and the amount of myelin made by these cells in the brains of the same subjects who provided the cells.

This finding, Cohen explained, “means that we can now study the causes of the abnormality of myelin that we have observed in living brain tissue in a laboratory setting.”

For the research team, the prospect of using lab cultures to look at differences in the brains of individuals with psychotic disorders is “an exciting development.” These types of studies may lead to better treatment approaches for people with psychotic disorders.

The new findings are published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Source: McLean Hospital