Research Article

In vivo modeling of human neuron dynamics and Down syndrome

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Science  16 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6416, eaau1810
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau1810

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Development of human brain neurons

The earliest stages of human brain development are very difficult to monitor, but using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can help to elucidate the process. Real et al. transplanted neural progenitors derived from human iPSCs into the brains of adult mice. They used intravital imaging to visualize how resulting neurons grew and connected. The human cells produced neurons that integrated and developed synaptic networks with oscillatory activity. Dendritic pruning was observed and involved a process of branch retraction, not degeneration. Cells derived from individuals with Down syndrome, upon transplantation into the mouse brain, produced neurons that grew normally but showed reduced dendritic spine turnover and less network activity.

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Structured Abstract


Scientists are building detailed maps of the cellular composition in the human brain to learn about its development. In the human cortex, the largest area of the mammalian brain, neural circuits are formed through anatomical refinement, including axon and synaptic pruning, and the emergence of complex patterns of network activity during early fetal development. Cellular analyses in the human brain are restricted to postmortem material, which cannot reveal the process of development. Model organisms are, therefore, commonly used for studies of brain physiology, development, and pathogenesis, but the results from model organisms do not always translate to humans.


Systems to model human neuron dynamics and their dysfunction in vivo are needed. While biopsy specimens and the generation of neurons from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) could provide the necessary human genetic background, two- and three-dimensional cultures lack factors that normally support neuronal development, including blood vessels, immune cells, and interaction with innervating neurons from other brain areas. On the basis of previous stem cell transplantation studies in mice, we reasoned that the physiological microenvironment of the adult mouse brain could support the growth of human cortical tissue grafts that had been generated from iPSC-derived neuronal progenitors. With human neurons implanted into the mouse brain, high-resolution, real-time in vivo monitoring of human neuron dynamics for periods of time spanning the range from subseconds to several months becomes feasible.


We found that transplanted human iPSC–derived neuronal progenitors consistently assembled into vascularized territories with complex cytoarchitecture, mimicking key features of the human fetal cortex, such as its large size and cell diversification. Single-cell-resolution intravital microscopy showed that human neuronal arbors were refined via branch-specific retraction, rather than degeneration. Human synaptic networks restructured over the course of 4 months, while maintaining balanced rates of synapse formation and elimination. Human functional neurons rapidly and consistently acquired oscillatory population activity, which persisted over the 5-month observation period. Lastly, we used cortical tissue grafts derived from the fibroblasts of two individuals with Down syndrome, caused by supernumerary chromosome 21. We found that neuronal synapses in cells derived from these individuals were overly stable and that oscillatory neural activity was reduced in these grafts, revealing in vivo cellular phenotypes not otherwise apparent.


By combining live imaging in a multistructured tissue environment in mice with a human-specific genetic background, we provide insights into the earliest stages of human axon, synaptic, and network activity development and uncover cellular phenotypes in Down syndrome. Our work provides an alternative experimental system that can be used to study other disorders affecting the developing human cortex.

Human neuron dynamics imaged in vivo.

We combined a human-specific genetic background with live imaging in cortical tissue grafts to investigate the earliest stages of human axon, synaptic, and network activity development and model Down syndrome.


Harnessing the potential of human stem cells for modeling the physiology and diseases of cortical circuitry requires monitoring cellular dynamics in vivo. We show that human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)–derived cortical neurons transplanted into the adult mouse cortex consistently organized into large (up to ~100 mm3) vascularized neuron-glia territories with complex cytoarchitecture. Longitudinal imaging of >4000 grafted developing human neurons revealed that neuronal arbors refined via branch-specific retraction; human synaptic networks substantially restructured over 4 months, with balanced rates of synapse formation and elimination; and oscillatory population activity mirrored the patterns of fetal neural networks. Lastly, we found increased synaptic stability and reduced oscillations in transplants from two individuals with Down syndrome, demonstrating the potential of in vivo imaging in human tissue grafts for patient-specific modeling of cortical development, physiology, and pathogenesis.

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