A team of scientists working out of Stanford University have discovered a breakthrough way of transforming cells from human skin into functioning nerve cells, potentially revolutionizing how nervous system disorders are treated, according to Nature.

The idea of turning your skin cells into brain cells may sound like mad science, but in fact many of the body's cells retain a latent ability to transform into other types of cells, so long as they receive the right kinds of biological coaxing. Skins cells have proven to be particularly malleable in this way. In the past year, researchers have learned how to convert skin cells into heart cells, blood cells and liver cells. This is the first time, however, that functioning neurons have been created in this way.

The technology used by the scientists relies on a process called transdifferentiation, which is a step up from using stem cell technology to regenerate tissue because it relies upon cells that are more plentiful within the body.

The Stanford researchers first realized that nerve cells could be generated using transdifferentiation last year, when they successfully transformed cells taken from the tip of a mouse's tail into working nerve cells. It was a breakthrough, but it didn't take long before they realized that the process wouldn't work so easily on humans.

"We thought that as it worked so great for the mouse, it should be no problem to work it out in humans," said Marius Wernig, who led the research team. "That turned out to be wrong."

Though human nerve cells were created using the same technique performed on the mice, the human nerve cells did not fire electric pulses characteristic of neurons. After a period of trial and error, however, Wernig's team adjusted their method and were able to generate a working neuron with nothing more than the addition of one extra virus-delivered gene into the cell.

Since the team was unable to sample tail cells to create the neurons, as they did with the mice, they instead used connective tissue cells derived from two unlikely sources: aborted fetuses and the foreskin of newborns. That may sound creepy, but it worked. A few weeks later, the newly generated neurons started to form synapses with other neurons. 

There are still a medley of kinks to work out with the technique, but Wernig says his team expects efficiency to improve. Working out an treatment for serious nervous system disorders is still a long way off, but the research provides a crucial first step.

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Scientists turn human skin cells into functioning neurons
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