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Modelling the brain to understand schizophrenia

Research awardFellows Award programme

Funding period2014 - 2017

InstitutionStanford University School of Medicine

LocationUnited States of America


Can using stem cells to recreate part of the human brain reveal the causes of schizophrenia?

The project

Understanding what happens in the brain cells of people with mental health conditions could provide vital information about how to identify and treat those problems.

So to simulate and study the ways that cells interact, our researcher, Dr Sergiu Pasca, used state-of-the-art stem cell technology to recreate parts of a functioning human brain in the lab.


The process

Sergiu and his team used a new technique for creating 3D cell cultures in lab conditions. This technique creates cells that more closely mimic natural tissues than cells grown in traditional flat petri dishes.

By taking stem cells from people with schizophrenia who have specific genetic mutations, the team created tiny ‘minibrains’ – each smaller than a pea – that emulated parts of a foetal human brain.

It’s was then possible to study the molecular and cellular processes that could contribute to schizophrenia.


This ground-breaking work enabled Sergiu and his team to study individual cells - and their growth into fully-functioning circuits - in detail we’ve never been able to see before. Previously we could only study individual cells in a test and the only way to study circuits was to use rodents’ brains.

As a result, they can now begin to answer fundamental questions about the formation of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain responsible for our most advanced functions and linked to mental illnesses like schizophrenia. 

Where next?

This groundbreaking work could transform our understanding of schizophrenia, potentially leading to therapeutic treatments that target the condition more precisely.

Sergiu’s model can also now be replicated to build different brain circuits, helping improve our understanding of other conditions associated with the brain and informing vital treatments. This could have a profound effect on future studies.

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