November 2, 2020

Neural network: what brain cells in a dish can tell us about bipolar disorder

News from our stem cell lab

This amazing photo was taken by Dan Schill, Ph.D., Post-Doctoral Fellow in the O'Shea stem cell lab.

Dr. Schill explains what he saw under the microscope: 

In Dr. O’Shea's laboratory we are interested in understanding bipolar disorder at the cellular level. To accomplish this, we study excitatory neurons, the cells on the bottom left with projections facing upwards, and support cells in the brain called astrocytes, the larger cells in the top right corner. In this image, the red stain identifies a protein expressed in neuronal cells and the blue stains the DNA in the cell’s nucleus. These cells are formed in the laboratory by differentiating stem cells generated from skin samples taken from control individuals and patients with bipolar disorder.

Malfunction of excitatory neurons has been suggested to be involved in bipolar disorder, so one the goals of our research is to determine how bipolar and control neurons may differ in their development and function. Obtaining a better understanding of these differences will help identify novel therapeutic targets to treat bipolar disorder.

The astrocytes release small particles, called exosomes, that influence the development and function of the neurons that take them up. These particles are 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of hair. Work from our laboratory has demonstrated that there are differences in these particles in bipolar disorder astrocytes compared to controls. We have found that particles from bipolar, but not control astrocytes, have a negative impact on neurons that take them up. These particles may therefore present a unique target in bipolar disorder. Lastly, these tiny particles can cross the blood-brain barrier and are present in our blood, so it is possible that any difference could be used as a biomarker for bipolar disorder in the future.