March 02, 2005

Nose Cells Provide Disease Insight

Read more... Schizophrenia Biology

Because psychiatric diseases predominantly affect cellular function in the brain, it can be hard to get a clear picture of exactly what is being affected at the molecular level. However, olfactory (nose) neurons connect directly to the brain, and thus share many features with other brain cells. These cells are easy to sample using a 5-minute biopsy procedure, and may provide valuable information concerning what is happening inside the brain.

For example, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and collaborating institutions recently reported altered olfactory cell function in patients with bipolar disorder. Using flourescence imaging, the scientists tested calcium response (an important nervous system ion implicated in the symptoms of bipolar disorder) in olfactory nerve cell samples from 17 bipolar patients (10 currently taking medication, 7 medication-free) with those of matched controls. Results showed a significantly decreased calcium ion response from the nerve cells from subjects with bipolar disorder.

"The deceased calcium responses point to a specific set of pathways that will allow us to narrow the target for identifying the defect of calcium regulation associated with bipolar disorder. Once identified, these pathways will provide new targets for drug development" says senior author Nancy Rawson, PhD.

The benefits of using olfactory receptor neuron samples to study psychiatric disorders and patient responsiveness include their similarity to brain neurons, the relatively easy biopsy procedure, and the potential for scientists to sample and compare cells from the same patients throughout several different stages of disease.

Scientists may eventually use similar techniques to diagnose schizophrenia. Read an article about the possibility of a diagnostic Smell Test. (

Source: "Olfactory Receptor Cells May Provide Clues to Psychiatric Disease" (March 1 2005). Available online at


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