Project Description

Neurons Derived from Stem Cells

Paola Arlotta

Paola Arlotta, PhD

A principal investigator in the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (HSCRB), and Director of the Nervous System Disease Program at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), Dr Paola Arlotta and her colleagues are developing human neurons from stem cells.  These neurons allow for screening of chemical compounds for potential drugs that will combat disease and tissue degeneration, shedding light on our understanding of pain, and provide insights for human health in general.

In the photo, Paola Arlotta stands next to a neuron crocheted by one of her postdoctoral fellows.  Neuroscientists are a creative bunch!

Arlotta Lab Neurons 6
Arlotta Lab Neurons 4

Developing Neurons from Stem Cells

Stem cell biology stands at the intersection of basic and clinical neuroscience. Stem cells can be made to develop into almost any cell type of the body, including neurons. 

In the past few years, researchers have demonstrated that neurons come in many different “flavors”, or neuronal subtypes. The human brain is comprised of a diverse pool of neuronal subtypes, each with a set of unique properties. To understand the source of this diversity, scientists use the blank canvas of stem cells to learn how the embryo drives neuronal diversification. Exposing stem cells in a petri dish to signals that mimic embryonic environment, it is possible to drive their development to particular neuronal subtypes. Neuroscientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute study how diversification of cell types occurs in the brain, and how genetic programs can regulate this process.

From the standpoint of clinical neuroscience, stem cells hold a promise for therapy in neurodegenerative diseases. Is it possible to replace dead or dying neurons with bona fide neurons derived from stem cells? This area of research is ongoing, and is a central mission of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute Nervous System Disease Program.