Viewing the Neurosphere

Patients with schizophrenia often cope with debilitating symptoms, and their suffering can be compounded by the lack of a reliable tool for diagnosing the disease. A group of researchers in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill works with bioinformatics software developers at RENCI to find new ways to study the brain in order to better understand schizophrenia and its causes.

Using a harmless surgical procedure that harvests cells from just inside the nose, the researchers obtained more than two dozen samples of living neuron stem cells from schizophrenia patients and unaffected volunteers. The cell cultures were viewed, photographed and videotaped under a microscope in an attempt to observe their activities.  The researchers also plan to use computer analyses of biochemical pathways to discover the etiologic traits in the cells from schizophrenia patients.

Neuron stem cells grow in a laboratory and aggregate into chains and spheres of 100 or more cells called neurospheres.  Some researchers theorize that in schizophrenia patients there is a disconnection between the signals a cell receives and the genes that control cell shape or migration. This would mean that brain organization might be subtly different in schizophrenia patients. The UNC researchers hope that computer-aided analysis of lab data, including micro images of neurons, will detect differences that exist between living cells from healthy volunteers and schizophrenia patients.

“The experts in the team agree that there is a genetic cause for schizophrenia.  They hypothesize that the problem lies with some of the genes that control other genes.  If the genes that control the shape and movement of neuron progenitor cells are misregulated, then we hope to detect that between the two sets of cell cultures,” says Clark Jeffries, a senior grid bioinformatics software developer at RENCI. If the micrographs and other data provide detectable differences, then this research could shed light on the cellular and biochemical characteristics of schizophrenia. It could even lead to a day when schizophrenia is diagnosed through a simple procedure that captures a cell culture to look at neuron stem cell activity.

“That would be an enormous step forward in treatment of a disease that today is hard to diagnose,” says Jeffries.

The effort to analyze neural stem cell imagery and biochemical data is part of RENCI’s work with the Carolina Center for Exploratory Genetic Analysis (CCEGA), a project funded by the National Institutes of Health to develop an interdisciplinary infrastructure to identify the complex genetic traits that underlie human diseases. Jeffries collaborates with UNC researchers to develop algorithms and interfaces that will make analyzing the stem cell data and sharing the results a simple process from the desktop. In the long run, these visualization and analysis procedures could be incorporated into versatile, web-based bioinformatics research tools, such as the RENCI-developed Bioportal.