Before committing suicide at the age of 22, an anonymous man with schizophrenia donated a biopsy of his skin cells to research. Reborn as neurons, these cells may help neuroscientists to unpick the disease he struggled with from early childhood. Experiments on these cells, as well as those of several other patients, are reported today in Nature1. They represent the first of what are sure to be many mental illnesses 'in a dish', made by reprogramming patients' skin cells to an embryonic-like state from which they can form any tissue type.
Recreating neuropsychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder using such cells represents a daunting challenge: scientists do not know the underlying biological basis of mental illnesses; symptoms vary between patients; and although psychiatric illnesses are strongly influenced by genes, it has proved devilishly hard to identify many that explain more than a fraction of a person's risk. “All of us had been contacted by patients asking 'when can I get my stem cells to solve my schizophrenia'. It's not as simple as that,” says Russell Margolis, a psychiatrist and neurogeneticist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who was not involved in the study. “It's an additional piece to the puzzle as opposed to the answer.”