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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Cell. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 August 5.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3151530

This article has been retractedRetraction in: Cell. 2015 March 19; 157(2): 514    See also: PMC Retraction Policy

Directed conversion of Alzheimer’s disease patient skin fibroblasts into functional neurons


Directed conversion of mature human cells, as from fibroblasts to neurons, would be of potential clinical utility for neurological disease modeling and as cell therapeutics. Here we describe the efficient generation of induced neuronal (hiN) cells from adult skin fibroblasts of unaffected individuals and Alzheimer’s patients, using virally transduced transcription regulators and extrinsic support factors. hiN cells from unaffected individuals display morphological, electrophysiological, and gene expression profiles that typify glutamatergic forebrain neurons, and are competent to integrate functionally into the rodent CNS. hiN cells from familial Alzheimer disease (FAD) patients with Presenilin-1 or -2 mutations exhibit altered processing and localization of amyloid precursor protein (APP) and increased production of Aβ, relative either to hiN cells from unaffected individuals or to the source patient fibroblasts. These findings demonstrate directed conversion of human fibroblasts to a neuronal phenotype and reveal cell type-selective pathology in hiN cells derived from FAD patients.


Mature mammalian cells can be reprogrammed to selected alternative fates by introduction of lineage-specific transcription regulators. For instance, Myod1 expression has been shown to induce a myocyte phenotype in fibroblast cultures (Davis et al., 1987). Similarly, transduction of a set of pluripotency regulators is sufficient to convert skin fibroblasts to induced pluripotency stem (iPS) cells with embryonic stem cell characteristics (Takahashi et al., 2007; Takahashi and Yamanaka, 2006; Yu et al., 2007). iPS cell technology has fueled much excitement in regenerative medicine, as these cells could be differentiated to generate ‘ replacement’ cell therapeutics. Patient iPS cell-derived neurons have also been proposed to serve as novel neurodegenerative disease models (Abeliovich and Doege, 2009).

A limitation to human iPS cell technology is that it remains inefficient (less than 1% of cells are typically reprogrammed) and time-intensive: iPS cell generation and subsequent differentiation to a neuronal phenotype can take 1–2 months each. Furthermore, the pluripotent state is associated with tumorigenesis and genetic instability (Pera, 2011). Recently, the directed conversion of rodent skin fibroblasts to a neuronal fate was reported, utilizing a set of 3 forebrain transcription regulators and apparently circumventing the production of a pluripotent intermediate state (Vierbuchen et al., 2010). Here we describe the directed conversion of adult human fibroblasts to a neuronal phenotype, termed human induced neuronal (hiN) cells. To validate the approach, we show that hiN cells display electrophysiological properties of forebrain glutamatergic neurons and can integrate into mammalian CNS circuitry.

We further apply hiN cell technology to a panel of skin fibroblasts derived from patients with sporadic or familial forms of Alzheimer’s disease. AD patients typically present with age-associated cognitive dysfunction in multiple realms, including reduced short-term (episodic) memory and spatial disorientation. These cognitive deficits are associated with neuronal and synaptic loss that is most prominent within the medial temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus formation (Alzheimer, 1907). Additional pathological features of AD include extracellular amyloid plaques composed largely of Aβ fragments of amyloid precursor protein (APP), and intraneuronal tangles that are structured of Tau paired helical filaments (Hardy and Selkoe, 2002). Rare, autosomal dominantly inherited familial forms of AD (FAD) are caused by mutations in APP or in the 2 Presenilin genes (Presenlin-1 and -2, or PSEN1 and PSEN2) that encode components of the γ-secretase enzyme complex required for APP cleavage to Aβ (Hardy and Selkoe, 2002).

The amyloid hypothesis of AD, that is based on the aforementioned pathological and genetic findings, proposes that modified cleavage of APP by β-secretase and γ-secretase enzymes leads to the generation of a pathogenic Aβ42 fragment. Consistent with this hypothesis, expression of disease-associated PSEN FAD mutations in cell and animal models leads to preferential accumulation of Aβ42 isoform relative to an Aβ40 isoform. Nonetheless, basic questions remain regarding the pathogenic mechanism of PSEN FAD mutations (De Strooper and Annaert, 2010; Shen and Kelleher, 2007). For instance, although PSEN FAD mutations increase relative Aβ42 production, they paradoxically reduce total γ-secretase activity, at least in cell-free and heterologous cell overexpression systems (Bentahir et al., 2006; Walker et al., 2005). The potential role of such reduced γ-secretase activity in the disease process remains controversial. Moreover, the impact of endogenous PSEN FAD mutations on functional human patient neurons remains unclear, as the majority of studies have utilized exogenous overexpression in tumor cells, transgenic mice, or skin fibroblasts. An additional outstanding question in the field is why PSEN-1 and -2 FAD mutations lead to a selective neuronal pathology, as these genes are broadly expressed.


Phenotypic characterization of hiN cells

We initially attempted to convert human adult skin fibroblasts (STC0022; see Table S1) to hiN cells by viral co-transduction of a combination of 3 transcription regulators -- Ascl1, Brn2, and Myt1l – which were shown to be effective for reprogramming of rodent cells (Vierbuchen et al., 2010). These attempts were unsuccessful and led to prominent apoptotic cell death. We subsequently found that viral co-transduction of a larger set of forebrain transcription regulators -- Brn2, Myt1l, Zic1, Olig2 and Ascl1 -- in the presence of neuronal survival factors (including brain-derived neurotrophic factor [BDNF], Neurotrophin-3 [NT3], and glial-conditioned media [GCM]), resulted in the generation of cells with a neuronal morphology termed hiN cells herein (Figures 1A to 1N). Three weeks after viral transduction, the hiN cells were immunostained positively for neuronal markers including Tuj1, MAP2, Tau1, NeuN, NCAM, and neurofilament-160 kd (Figures 1B to 1G, 1J to 1N and S1). Such cells were never observed in fibroblast cultures transduced with control vector only (Figures 1H and 1I). Cell staining with the astroglial marker Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein (GFAP) was not detected within hiN cell cultures (Figure S1). Over 90% of MAP2-positive cells stained positively for the neocortical glutamate neuron marker Tbr1 (Figure 1K). In contrast, Tbr1-positive cells were not positively co-stained with an antibody to the fibroblast marker, Fibroblast-Specific Protein-1 (FSP1; Figure 1L). Approximately half of the MAP2-positive cells stained positively for the mature glutamatergic neuron marker Vesicular Glutamate Transporter-1 (vGLUT1) in a stereotypical punctate pattern (Figure 1M). Only rare MAP2-positive cells (less than 1%) displayed the GABAergic neuron marker, glutamic acid decarboxylase-65 (GAD65; Figure 1N).

Figure 1
hiN cells display a forebrain glutamatergic neuron phenotype

We applied the hiN cell conversion protocol above to a panel of 9 adult human skin fibroblast lines in total (see Table S1). Quantitative analysis indicated that the efficiency of conversion of fibroblasts to MAP2-positive hiN cells across these lines varied from 7.1% to 8.9% (as a percentage of input fibroblasts; n=3 per group). After accounting for cell attrition during the 3-week culture, 28.4% to 36.1% of the surviving cells were MAP2-positive (Figure 1O). Across these lines, between 48.2%-60.9% of the MAP2-positive cells also stained for vGLUT1 (Figure 1P).

Time course analysis indicated that MAP2- and vGLUT1-positive hiN cells first appear by day 7 after viral vector transduction and that maximal conversion occurs by 21 days (Figure 2A). After 21 days, hiN cell number decreased, and this was accompanied by evidence of apoptosis (Figures 2A and S2C to S2G). Remaining cells displayed progressively elongated processes, as expected (Figure S2B). To determine the factors necessary and sufficient to generate hiN cells, we removed individual transcription factor vectors or extrinsic components from the conversion protocol. These data indicated that Ascl1 and Brn2 are essential for the process, whereas Zic1 and Myt1l modify the efficiency, and Oligo2 appear to be redundant (Figure 2B). After transduction with viral factor cocktails, converted cells maintained expression of the extrinsic virally-encoded Ascl1, Brn2, and Myt1l transcription factors, as determined by RT-PCR analysis, whereas extrinsic Zic1 expression was maintained only in a subset of cultures (Figure S2A). It is conceivable that such maintained exogenous factor expression may have contributed to the apoptotic loss of hiN cells with extended culturing. Of the tested soluble extrinsic factors, only BDNF appeared essential for production of MAP2+/vGLUT1+ cells (Figure 2B and Figure S2D).

Figure 2
Further description of hiN cell conversion: essential factors and transcriptome analysis

A single polycistronic lentivirus vector harboring the genes Ascl1, Brn2, and Zic1 (ABZ vector) was sufficient for the conversion process (Figures 2C and S2K to S2N). ABZ vector-mediated conversion was highly efficient, and could be further enhanced by adding Myt1l (Figures 2C and S2O to S2V): specifically, 62 ± 6% of the adult human fibroblasts that were transduced with the ABZ vector and 85 ± 15% of the cells that were transduced with the ABZ vector with Myt1 acquired a MAP2-positive neuronal morphology phenotype (Figures 2C and S2L to S2Q). These hiN cells expressed additional neuron markers including Tau-1, Tuj1, TBR1, and vGLUT1 (Figures S2R to S2V).

To further characterize the hiN cell phenotype, we performed whole-transcriptome gene expression profiling on neurons purified from hiN cell cultures. hiN cell cultures were subjected to fluorescence activated cell sorting (FACS; Figures S2H to S2J) to select for Neural Cell Adhesion Molecule (NCAM; a marker for mature neurons as well as some neural progenitors) positive cells. RNA preparations from FACS-purified hiN cells, total (‘mixed”) cultures, and unconverted fibroblasts were then analyzed for genome-wide expression using Affymetrix Human Genome U133 Plus 2.0 arrays (Table S2). Hierarchical clustering analysis demonstrated that the transcriptome profiles of purified hiN cells were more similar to each other than to the originating fibroblasts (Figure 2D). Using gene ontology (GO) functional annotation, we then identified genes that are most enriched within the purified hiN cell samples relative to the fibroblast samples (upregulated by at least 4-fold with a significance analyses of microarrays False Discovery Rate [FDR] cutoff of less than 25%). Consistent with a neuronal phenotype, the most highly enriched, functionally annotated gene sets in the purified hiN samples included ‘Axonal Projection’ and ‘Neuronal Differentiation’ genes (Figures 2E to 2G, Table S2). Finally, we performed hierarchical clustering to broadly compare hiN cell gene expression profiles to those seen in human neurons (isolated from post-mortem brain samples) and other cell types, using a large set of 336 existing gene expression profiles. As expected, FACS sorted hiN cell samples clustered most closely with CNS neurons rather than fibroblasts, astrocytes, neural progenitors, or pluripotent ES or iPS cells (Figure S3).

hiN cell reprogramming is directed

We hypothesized that reprogramming to the hiN cell phenotype does not proceed through neuronal progenitor intermediates. Consistent with this, expression of the progenitor markers Sox2 and Pax6 was not apparent during hiN cell reprogramming (Figures 3A to 3C and 3E to 3G). Expression of Nestin, which is associated with neuronal progenitors but also functions more generally as a cytoskeleton regulator during morphological cell changes (Gilyarov, 2008), appeared transiently in a subpopulation of cells (<10%; Figures 3I and 3M to 3O). In contrast to hiN cell reprogramming, differentiation of human iPS cells to a neural progenitor state led to the robust accumulation of Sox2-positive, Pax6-positive and Nestin-positive progenitors, as expected (Figures 3D, 3H, and 3L). RNA expression profiling by real-time quantitative RT-PCR similarly indicated that expression of neuronal progenitor markers such as FOXG1 and OTX2 were absent from hiN cell cultures (Figure 3P).

Figure 3
hiN cell reprogramming is directed

Physiological properties of hiN cells

To evaluate whether hiN cells have electrophysiological properties consistent with functional neurons, we carried out patch clamp recordings of cells at days 21–28 of culture. The majority of hiN cells displayed typical neuronal Na+, K+, and Ca2+ channel properties. Specifically, TTX- sensitive Na+ currents were characterized by a typical current density-voltage relationship (Figures 4A and 4B; confirmed in 18 of 22 cells analyzed). Outward K+ currents, inhibited in the presence of intracellular cesium (Cs+), were readily apparent (Figures 4C and 4D; confirmed in 14 of 16 cells analyzed). Calcium channel function, measured using Barium (Ba2+) as the charge carrier, displayed typical neuronal characteristics (Figure 4E; confirmed in 3 of 4 cells analyzed). Consistent with such channel properties, most hiN cells were able to fire at least one action potential in response to depolarizing current injections in current clamp mode (Figure 4F; 9 of 10 cells analyzed). Furthermore, upon termination of hyperpolarizing pulses, cells displayed a typical rebound spike (Figure 4F). Passive membrane properties were also consistent with an in vitro neuronal phenotype, with a resting membrane potentials ranging from −67 mV to −32 mV (average −52 mV; n=17), membrane time constant (τ) ranged from 1.00 to 0.30 msec, membrane resistance (Rm) ranging from 0.12 to 1.7 GΩ, and capacitance ranging from 22 to 70 pF. We further evaluated γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA-) ergic and glutamatergic ligand-gated ion channel activity in hiN cells. hiN cells responded to exogenous puff application of glutamate or GABA, displaying typical depolarizing and hyperpolarizing currents, respectively (Figures 4G to 4J; 7 of 7 cells analyzed). Finally, to provide functional evidence that hiN cells possess elements of the intrinsic machinery for synaptic vesicle release, we quantified local calcium transients within axon-like processes in the context of membrane step depolarization (using the fluorescent calcium indicator Oregon Green–BAPTA; OG-1). Highly localized, depolarization-evoke fluorescence intensity changes were apparent within the axon-like processes of hiN cells (Figure 4K; seen in 6 of 10 cells), which are thought to represent putative synaptic release sites (Forti et al., 2000).

Figure 4
Electrophysiological characterization and evoked calcium transients of cultured hiN cells

hiN cells can integrate into neuronal circuitry in vitro and in vivo

We did not observe spontaneous activity suggestive of neuronal connectivity in hiN cells voltage clamped at −70 mV using the standard culture conditions as above (n= 16 of 16 cells tested). We therefore sought to develop alternative protocols that may provide the appropriate environmental cues for synaptic maturation. Two different paradigms were pursued. First, as glial cells can play a major role in the regulation of neuronal synaptic development and connectivity (Eroglu and Barres, 2010), hiN cells were co-cultured with murine glial cells (obtained from mice ubiquitously expressing red fluorescent protein; (Muzumdar et al., 2007). After 2 weeks of co-culture, whole cell patch clamp recordings of hiN cells (identified as non-fluorescent cells with a neuronal morphology) held at −70mV revealed spontaneous membrane current changes that were sensitive to glutamatergic receptor inhibition with NBQX and APV (Figures 5A to 5C; n=6 of 10 cells tested).

Figure 5
Evidence of hiN cell functional integration

Second, GFP-labeled hiN cells were transplanted in utero into embryonic day 15 mouse brain (Brustle et al., 1997). The transplanted cells migrated from the ventricles into various brain regions, as expected (Figures 5D and 5E; Table S3). The identity of GFP-positive transplanted hiN cells was further confirmed by immunostaining with an antibody specific for human NCAM (Figure 5F). Voltage clamp recordings from GFP-positive hiN cells within acutely prepared brain slices from postnatal day 7 pups demonstrated spontaneous currents of various amplitudes and frequencies (Figure 5G; n=3). These events increased in frequency and amplitude upon blockade of GABAA receptors with picrotoxin (Figure 5H), and were suppressed with the glutamatergic receptor channel inhibitors NBQX and APV (Figure 5I). As the patch recording pipette solution was filled with a red fluorescent dye, Alexa-598 (Figures S4A and S4B), we could confirm the identity of the recorded cell by dual fluorescence imaging. Subsequent to the recording, slices were immunostained to demonstrate expression of the human-specific mitochondrial marker hMito within recorded cells (Figure S4C; n=3). Taken together, these findings support the idea that hiN cells are capable of neuronal connectivity.

Generation of hiN cells from FAD and SAD patient skin fibroblasts

As proof of principle for their utility in disease modeling, we generated hiN cells from a panel of human skin fibroblasts derived from patients with familial AD (FAD) due to mutations in PSEN -1 or -2; patients with sporadic AD (SAD); or unaffected individuals (UND; n=3 per each group). Given the likely heterogeneity of ‘sporadic’ disease and the limited number of samples examined in our study, we subsequently focused herein on phenotypic examination of the familial lines. hiN cells derived from disease-associated fibroblasts appeared similar to those from unaffected individuals with respect to neuronal reprogramming characteristics, such as efficiency of MAP2-positive hiN cell generation and the percent of neurons that express vGLUT1 (Figures 1O and 1P). Induction of expression of the mature neuron marker Synaptophysin was comparable among the hiN cell cultures, as determined by quantitative real time RT-PCR analysis (Figure S5A). Overall remaining cell density at 3 weeks was not significantly different across the hiN cell cultures (Figure S5B).

APP processing in FAD- and SAD-derived hiN cells

We next evaluated AD-associated phenotypes in the hiN cell cultures, including the processing of amyloid precursor protein (APP) to the Aβ42 and Aβ40 fragments. FAD patient brain is typified by an increased Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio (Hardy and Selkoe, 2002). Consistent with this, the Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio was dramatically increased in FAD hiN cell cultures relative to UND hiN cell cultures, as quantified in cell media by ELISA (Figure 6A; P<0.001, ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey HSD; N=3 patient lines per FAD or UND group with 11–16 independent cultures per line). Similarly, on a pooled analysis of all FAD hiN versus all UND hiN cultures, the Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio is significantly increased in the FAD group (P<1 × 10−9; ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey HSD; N>38 per group). The increased Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio is most evident in the AG07768 line, but even in the absence of those AG07768 samples, the FAD group displayed an elevated Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio (P<1 × 10−9; ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey HSD, N>29 per group). Importantly, the Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio in FAD hiN cell cultures was also elevated relative to the originating FAD fibroblast cultures (P<1 × 10−9; ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey HSD; N>38 per group). In contrast, the Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio in UND hiN cell cultures was not significantly elevated relative to the originating UND fibroblast cultures (P>0.05; ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey HSD; N>30 per group). FAD hiN cell conversion led to an increase in the level of total Aβ (combined Aβ42 and Aβ40 polypeptides) relative to the originating FAD fibroblasts (Figure 6B; P < 0.05; ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey HSD; N= 3 individual lines per group, with 11 to 16 independent wells for each line). Such an increase in total Aβ with hiN cell conversion was not apparent in the context of UND cultures. Taken together, these data indicate that hiN cell conversion appears to amplify an FAD-associated phenotype in the context of PSEN1 or PSEN2 mutations.

Figure 6
Modified APP processing in FAD hiN cell cultures

Levels of APP holoprotein (the Aβ42 and Aβ40 precursor) did not differ significantly between hiN cell cultures from FAD patients versus UND controls, as quantified by ELISA on cellular lysates (Figure 6C) or by quantitative real-time RT-PCR on RNA transcripts (Figure S5C). However, in comparison to the original fibroblast cultures, holoprotein expression was consistently elevated with all hiN cell cultures regardless of origin (Figure 6C). Since hiN cultures from FAD and UND genotypes displayed similar levels of APP, it is unlikely that APP levels account for the selective generation of Aβ42 in FAD hiN cells. Using co-immunostaining with antibodies to Aβ42, Aβ40 and MAP2, we further observed that both isoforms of Aβ are selectively increased in the MAP2-positive neuronal, but not in the remaining fibroblastic cells, that compose the mixed hiN culture (Figures 6D and Figure S5H to S5J).

Cleavage of APP by BACE1 β–secretase activity is thought to be a rate-limiting step in the production of Aβ, and precedes cleavage by γ-secretase (Thinakaran and Koo, 2008). We thus quantified the soluble extracellular cleavage product of APP by BACE1, termed sAPPβ, in the hiN cell cultures. There was a consistent increase in the sAPPβ product in converted FAD and UND hiN cell cultures relative to their respective fibroblasts. However, accumulation of sAPPβ was not significantly elevated in hiN cell cultures from FAD patients relative to hiN cell cultures from UND individuals (Figure 6E). BACE1 transcript levels, as determined by quantitative real-time RT-PCR, did not appear altered in hiN cell cultures relative to fibroblasts regardless of disease status (Figure S5D). Thus, the elevated level of Aβ42 in hiN-FAD is not caused by increased activity of BACE1.

Altered APP-positive endocytic compartment morphology in FAD hiN cells

Immunocytochemical analysis of hiN cells with an antibody to the APP amino-terminus domain revealed the presence of APP-positive puncta within soma (Figures 7A and 7B). In contrast, such APP-positive punctate structures were not readily apparent in the originating fibroblasts. Quantitative analysis of APP staining of hiN cells revealed that APP-positive puncta (defined as 0.1 to 1 μM in diameter) are significantly increased in FAD derived hiN cell cultures, relative to UND hiN cells, quantified in terms of total puncta area per cell (Figure 7C; FAD: 78.2 ± 10.93 μm2, UND: 23.8 ± 3.28 μm2). This is due to both an increased number of puncta per cell as well as an increased average size of puncta (Figures S6A and S6B). Similar findings were apparent with a second independent antibody to APP (Figure S6I). Pathological studies of sporadic AD patients at autopsy have reported evidence for alteration in the size of intracellular vesicular endocytic (Cataldo et al., 1997) and lysosomal (Cataldo et al., 1996) compartments.

Figure 7
APP is enriched within modified endocytic compartment puncta in FAD hiN cells

APP processing by the β– and γ-secretase activities may largely proceed within vesicular endosomal compartments (Tang, 2009). We thus further characterized the APP-positive punctate structures in hiN cells by co-staining with antibodies for a panel of vesicular compartment and plasma membrane markers. Sub-populations of APP-positive puncta in hiN cells stained positively for an early endosomal marker, early endosome associated antigen-1 (EEA1); a late endosomal marker, the cation-independent mannose 6-phosphate receptor (MPR); and a lysosomal marker, the lysosomal associated marker protein-2 (LAMP2). Localization to the plasma membrane at the cell periphery was also observed (quantified in terms of co-localization at a membrane dye, CellMask). Of these populations, the EEA1-positive, APP-positive compartment was significantly increased in FAD hiN cells relative to UND cells, as quantified by the percentage of APP-positive puncta stained with EEA1 (Figures 7D to 7F; FAD 24 ± 2%, UND 13 ± 1%). In contrast, APP puncta staining at the plasma membrane appeared significantly reduced in the FAD hiN cells (FAD-hiN 2.1 ± 1.3%, UND-hiN 6.3 ± 1.0%; Figures 7G to 7I). APP-positive endocytic puncta also stained for BACE1 (Figures 7J to 7L and S6I, FAD 54.2 ± 2.91 μm2, UND 16.5 ± 0.83 μm2), as expected given the known localization of BACE1 (Vassar et al., 1999). Finally, we note that EEA1-positive and MPR-positive puncta were generally enlarged in FAD cells (Figures 7D to 7F and S6C to S6E), regardless of co-staining with APP, indicative of a broadly altered endocytic compartment, rather than a specific defect in APP-positive structures.

We next sought to clarify whether altered APP-positive puncta morphology in FAD-derived hiN cells might simply be a secondary consequence of Aβ accumulation. Treatment with a γ-secretase inhibitor, DAPT, which suppressed production of Aβ (Figures S6K and S6L), did not prevent increased APP-positive puncta area per cell in the context of the FAD lines (Figures 7M to 7O). Rather, we found that DAPT treatment of UND hiN cells, but not FAD hiN cells, partially phenocopied the magnified APP-positive intracellular compartment (Figures 7M to 7O). Thus, the increased APP-positive puncta seen with DAPT of UND hiN cells was occluded in the context of FAD hiN cell cultures (that already harbor increased total APP-positive puncta).

Finally, to more directly relate the altered intracellular APP-positive puncta in FAD hiN cells to FAD mutations, we performed a ‘rescue’ experiment by overexpressing wild-type PSEN1 into FAD PSEN1 mutant hiN cells. Although FAD mutations are dominantly inherited in human patients, it is well described that over-expression of PSENs leads to preferential replacement of the endogenously encoded form by the exogenous overexpressed gene product (in part a consequence of reduced stability of the endogenously encoded gene product; Thinakaran et al., 1997). Consistent with this, we found that overexpression of wild-type PSEN1 by transfection of a plasmid vector into hiN cell cultures (along with GFP to identify the individual transfected neurons) led to a nearly complete ‘rescue’ of the endosomal APP-positive endocytic phenotype; transfection of this vector into UND cells did not appear to alter intracellular APP-positive puncta staining (Figures 7P to 7R). These findings suggest that the FAD phenotype is caused at least in part by abnormal endocytic function, which is dependent on PSEN.


A major goal in regenerative medicine is the facile generation of human neurons for cell replacement therapeutics or disease modeling. The description of hiPS cell reprogramming methods for the generation of pluripotent cells has fueled excitement in the field. But as hiPS cell generation is complex, time consuming, and associated with tumorigenicity and genomic DNA rearrangements (Pera, 2011), alternative approaches are of interest. By comparison to hiPS cell reprogramming, hiN cell conversion offers a more directed route to terminally differentiated neurons.

Our analysis of FAD-patient derived hiN cell cultures underscore the potential utility of such human neuronal disease models. hiN cells from PSEN mutant FAD patient fibroblasts display an increased Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio relative to UND hiN cells, consistent with patient brain pathology and with the well characterized role of PSENs as essential components of the γ-secretase complex (Hardy and Selkoe, 2002). Surprisingly, the impact of FAD PSEN mutations on the Aβ42/Aβ40 ratio was amplified upon hiN cell conversion from fibroblasts. This suggests a model in which PSEN FAD mutants may alter APP processing at multiple levels: directly through modified γ-secretase activity, as well as indirectly with altered cellular context. Consistent with this model, we show that intracellular localization of APP within vesicular endocytic structures is modified in the context FAD PSEN hiN cells.

Prior pathological autopsy studies of early-stage AD patient brain have reported the presence of altered endosomal, lysosomal, and autophagy compartments (Nixon and Cataldo, 2006). Furthermore, a complete deficiency of PSEN-1 and -2 in fibroblasts can impair endosomal trafficking (Repetto et al., 2007). However, the impact of FAD PSEN mutations on neuronal APP-positive endosomal structures has not previously been characterized. Our analysis further indicates that γ-secretase inhibition in UND hiN cell cultures appears to mimic the APP-positive endosomal compartment phenotype of FAD cultures, suggesting a role for reduced γ-secretase activity in this FAD phenotype. It remains possible that FAD-associated endosomal compartment modifications, as observed in FAD hiN cells, play a pathogenic role in AD independent of Aβ. The issue is complicated by the many functionally heterogeneous FAD-associated PSEN1 and PSEN2 mutations. An important limitation to our present study is that we evaluate only 2 such forms, and thus future studies with additional lines would likely be informative.

Examination of FAD hiN cell models for additional AD-associated pathological findings, such as defective synaptic function, will be of interest. To this end, the ability of hiN cells to functionally integrate into neuronal circuitry may be particularly useful. It is also conceivable that such integration of hiN cells into murine AD disease models may prove to be therapeutically beneficial. Finally, we note that it may be feasible to evaluate mechanisms of sporadic AD pathology using hiN cell models.


Human skin fibroblasts

Human skin fibroblast cultures from 9 individuals were used in this study (see Table S1). All lines were derived from de-identified, banked tissue samples. Human skin fibroblasts were cultured in standard fibroblast media (see Extended Experimental Procedures).

Plasmid construction and Lentiviral production

cDNAs for the reprogramming factors were cloned into lentiviral vectors either individually or as a polycistronic set (for Ascl1, Brn2, and Zic1; see Extended Experimental Procedures for cloning details). Production of replication-incompetent lentiviral particles was as described (Macleod et al., 2006). Human wild type PSEN1 cDNA (Openbiosystems) was cloned into the pLenti6.3/V5-Dest vector using the Gateway LR cloning system (Invitrogen).

hiN cell induction and transfection

Fibroblasts were transduced with replication-incompetent, VSVg-coated lentiviral particles encoding Ascl1, Brn2, Myt1l, Oligo2 and Zic1 at a multiplicity of infection of 2:1, and maintained in fibroblast media for 2 days (see Extended Experimental Procedures). Subsequently, the media was replaced with glial-conditioned N2 media (GCM; DMEM/F12 with N2 supplement; Invitrogen) containing 20ng/ml BDNF and 20ng/ml NT3 (Peprotech). For the first 4 days in GCM, dorsomorphin (1 μM; Stemgent) was also supplemented. Media was changed every 2–3 days for the duration of the culture period. For the PSEN1 rescue study, cells were transfected with pLenti6.3/V5-Presenilin1 and pEGFP-C1 plasmids (9:1) using the Lipofectamine 2000 reagent (DNA: LF2000 1 μg: 5 μl in each well of 24 well, Invitrogen).

Immunocytochemistry, Immunohistochemistry, and RT-PCR

Immunocytochemistry and Immunohistochemistry (IHC) were performed as previously described (Macleod et al., 2006). Detailed antibody sources and dilutions utilized can be found in the Extended Experimental Procedures. Imaging was conducted by laser-scanning confocal microscopy with a 63×/1.4 objective (LSM510, Carl Zeiss) or epifluorescence microscope (Olympus 1X71; Japan). Cell counts and fluorescence intensities were quantified within 10 to 35 images of randomly selected views per well. Subsequently, images were analyzed for cell counts and fluorescent intensity using Image J 1.42q software (National Institute of Health, USA). Values are presented as mean ± SEM. Quantitative real time RT-PCR was performed as described (Rhinn et al., 2008); primer pairs utilized are detailed in the Extended Experimental Procedures. Gene expression levels were quantified by the ΔΔCt method (Rhinn et al., 2008).

FACS and transcriptome analyses

hiN cells (106 cells) were stained with an antibody to NCAM (BD Bioscience) and then sorted on a FACS Aria IIu (BD Bioscience, CA) directly into RNA lysis solution (Ambion, TX). RNA was extracted from cell preparations using the RNAqueous Micro Kit (Ambion). Concentration and quality of RNA were assessed using the Bioanalyzer system (Agilent). mRNA was amplified and labeled using Ovation Pico WTA System (Nugen), and subsequently hybridized to Human Genome U133 Plus 2.0 Arrays (Affymetrix). Raw data were processed using the R statistical computing environment Affymetrix Linear Modeling Graphical User Interface package (affylmGUI). Computational Methods are detailed in the Extended Experimental Procedures.

In utero transplantation

Human skin fibroblasts (STC0022) were labeled by transduction with a GFP-encoding lentiviral vector, and then passaged 3 times over 10 days prior to initiation of hiN cell induction to remove residual lentivirus. hiN induction was then performed using the lentiviral vectors encoding Ascl1, Brn2, Myt1l, Oligo2 and Zic1, as described above. 7 to 10 days later, cells were trypsinized and triturated to single-cell suspensions in the presence of 0.1% DNase (Qiagen). Timed pregnant C57BL/6N mice at day 13.5 of gestation were anesthetized with oxygen containing 2% isoflurane administered through an inhalation mask, and 2–5×105 cells were injected into the telencephalic vesicle of each embryo as described (Brustle et al., 1997). Transplanted mice were spontaneously delivered and analyzed at the time points indicated. Following deep isoflurane anesthesia, mice were euthanized and the brains were rapidly removed and fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde for two days. For IHC, 50 μm sections were cut with a vibrating blade microtome.

Electrophysiology and Calcium Imaging

Tight-seal whole cell recordings (WCR) were performed with borosilicate glass pipettes (resistance 5–8 MΩ) using an Axopatch 200B amplifier (Axon Instruments). Recordings from transplanted cells were performed in acutely prepared brain slices (180 μm thick) through the entire cerebrum as described in detail (Llano and Bezanilla, 1980). For glial co-culture studies, murine astroglial cells were prepared as previously described (Kaech and Banker, 2006) from mice ubiquitously expressing red fluorescent protein (Muzumdar et al., 2007). For calcium imaging, Oregon Green–BAPTA 1 (OG1; Molecular probes) was added at a concentration of 100 μM. Fluorescent imaging was conducted using a digital EM-CCD camera (Andor ixon) with an LED light source (Cairn). Values are expressed as the percentage of change in fluorescence signal with respect to pre-stimulus control, ΔF/F0=100×(F−F0)/(F0−B) where F is the fluorescence at any given time; F0 is the average at the pre-stimulus period; and B is the average value of the background fluorescence at each time point, as quantified in four regions of the imaged field that do not contain any part of the dye-filled cell.

Sandwich ELISAs

APP ELISA was performed using a human APP ELISA kit (Invitrogen, Camarillo, CA), according to the manufacturer’s instruction. Absorbance was read on a VersaMax ELISA Microplate Reader (Molecular Devices, Inc. Sunnyvale, CA) at 450 nm. The amount of APP was normalized to the total cell protein (determined with the DC Protein Assay Reagent kit; Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA). sAPPβ ELISA was performed using BetaMark sAPP Beta ELISA kit (Covance, Princeton, NJ), according to the manufacturer’s instruction. The chemiluminescence was read on a microplate luminometer (SPECTRAFluoR Plus, TECAN, Männedorf Switzerland). Aβ quantification was performed by ELISA as described previously (Cirrito et al., 2003).

Statistical analysis

Statistic analyses were performed with the Ystat 2002 software (Igaku Tosho Shuppan Co., Ltd., Tokyo, Japan) together with Microsoft Excel software (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA, USA), or using R aov and TukeyHSD functions. The statistical significance of comparisons were assessed either by ANOVA with post-hoc Tukey HSD (where indicated), or by non-parametric ANOVA Kruskal-Wallis H-test, followed by posthoc Mann-Whitney U-test with Bonferroni correction.


  • Directed conversion of human fibroblasts to a neuronal phenotype, termed hiN cells
  • Generation of hiN cells from patients with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Physiological integration of transplanted hiN cells into the murine CNS
  • Altered APP intracellular compartmentalization in FAD hiN cells
  • Genetic rescue of APP compartmentalization defect in FAD hiN cells

Supplementary Material




We are grateful to David Holtzman and John Cirrito for generously providing reagents for ELISA, and Laura Baur for assistance with plasmid construction. We thank Arnon Rosenthal, Scott Small, and Oliver Hobert for reviewing the manuscript. Laetitia Aubry, Peter Koppensteiner, Laura Baur, and Ottavio Arancio helped in early stages of the project. We thank Mikako Sakurai for technical advice on in utero transplantation. This work was funded in part by the Helmsley Foundation, the New York State Stem Cell Science NYSTEM grants C024402 and C024403, as well as an anonymous foundation.


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