Neurological diseases are best studied using human neurons, and a longtime goal — once thought impossible — has been to grow such neurons in the lab. Now researchers have succeeded, maintaining adult neurons in culture for months, an achievement that opens a way to better understand how epilepsy treatments affect the brain.
Cultured neuron cells will also help scientists discern how neurons connect with one another, and how they become faulty in diseases like epilepsy.
Results of the work by a University of Pennsylvania team, “Primary Cell Culture Of Live Neurosurgically Resected Aged Adult Human Brain Cells And Single Cell Transcriptomics” were published in the journal Cell Reports.
“We were surprised that we could grow these neurons at all,” James Eberwine, the study’s senior author, said in a news release. “The oldest tissue came from a donor who was in their mid-sixties. This is even more surprising because neurons don’t divide, so they need to last a lifetime. We are finally able to characterize adult aged cells from the most enigmatic organ of the body —the seat of learning and memory, as well as consciousness.”
Researchers used samples of brain tissue donated by seven patients, in their 20s to 60s, who underwent surgery to treat epilepsy or brain cancer. They identified the different types of brain cells present, as well as the proteins and genes active in these cells, many of which are specific for each cell type. They also identified more than 12,000 genes in various brain cells grown in the lab, hundreds of which were expressed only in certain types of these cells.
This, the researchers wrote, helped them ” have a better idea of the variability in gene expression that results in subclasses of cells in the human brain.”
Importantly, researchers found that cells from each patient had a distinct pattern of gene expression, which supports research into more personalized treatments for epilepsy and other brain diseases.
Creating cultures from cells of patients in their mid-60s may also help in understanding how aging influences the brain and neuronal activity.
“Primary culturing of adult brain cells from human biopsies has allowed us to capture the range of expression for each cell type and to glimpse the plasticity built into the human system,” researchers wrote. “In addition to providing a model system to study human disease and drug treatments, these data have provided insight into the plasticity and range of [mechanisms] inherent in human brain cells that are necessary for the proper functioning of the human brain.”