Serotonin a signaling chemical in the brain affects emotions, sleep, anxiety, depression, appetite, pulse and breathing. It also plays a role in serious psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Su-Chun Zhang, a pioneer in developing neurons from stem cells at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has created a specialized nerve cell that makes serotonin.
Zhang said, "Serotonin essentially modulates every aspect of brain function, including movement. The transmitter is made by a small number of neurons localized on one structure at the back of the brain. Serotonin exerts its influence because the neurons that make it project to almost every part of the brain."
The study, reported in the Nature Biotechnology, began with two types of stem cells- one derived from embryos, the other from adult cells. Because serotonin neurons form before birth, the researchers had to recreate the chemical environment found in the developing brain in the uterus, Zhang says.
The cells showed the expected response to electrical stimulation and also produced serotonin.
First author Jianfeng Lu, a scientist at UW-Madison's Waisman Center said, "Although other scientists have matured stem cells into something resembling serotonin neurons, the case is much more conclusive this time. Previously, labs were producing a few percent of serotonin neurons from pluripotent stem cells, and that made it very difficult to study their cells. If you detect 10 neurons, and only two are serotonin neurons, it's impossible to detect serotonin release; that was the stone in the road. Instead, those neurons were identified based on cellular markers, which is not sufficient to say those are functional serotonin neurons."
Zhang said, "To confirm that the new cells act like serotonin neurons,we showed that the neurons responded to some FDA-approved drugs that regulate depression and anxiety through the serotonin pathway. While the previous attempts followed what was learned from mouse studies, the current study used other growth factors. It was not exactly trial and error; we have some rules to follow, but we had to refine it little by little to work out - one chemical at a time - the concentration and timing, and then check and recheck the results. That's why it took time."
Zhang further added, "Although cells derived from stem cells are commonly used to test drug toxicity, we are aiming higher with the serotonin neurons. We think these can help develop new, more effective drugs, especially related to the higher neural functions that are so difficult to model in mice and rats. Particularly because they are from humans, these cells may lead to benefits for patients with depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety. These are some of the most troublesome psychiatric conditions, and we really don't have great drugs for them now."
Lu said, "Because the neurons can be generated from induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be produced from a patient's skin cells, these could be useful for finding treatments for psychiatric disorders like depression, where we often see quite variable responses to drugs. By identifying individual differences, this could be a step toward personalized medicine. I'm like Su-Chun. I don't want to just make a publication in a scientific journal. I want our work to affect human health, to improve the human condition."