The use of Stem Cells to Study the Development and Function of the Nervous System
Work in the lab focuses on the mechanisms that control neural differentiation and neural circuit assembly. The vertebrate central nervous system contains thousands of different neuronal cell types each one of which exhibits a unique set of developmental behaviors, such as migration of young neurons, axon pathfinding and synapse formation. Individual neuronal types are generally represented by a small number of cells, often scattered within the nervous system, which limits the scope of methods applicable to their study. To overcome this problem, we have taken advantage of the capacity of embryonic stem (ES) cells to differentiate into specific types of nerve cells in vitro. We have developed a robust protocol for the differentiation of mouse ES cells into spinal motor neurons and interneurons. The goal of these studies is to use stem cell technologies in combination with mouse genetics to discover mechanisms and principles of cell fate specification and to define the developmental changes underlying neuronal maturation and aging. Beside basic studies we use mouse and human stem cell-derived motor neurons to model motor neuron degenerative diseases and as a tool for drug discovery.