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Human cerebral cortex development from pluripotent stem cells to functional excitatory synapses


Efforts to study the development and function of the human cerebral cortex in health and disease have been limited by the availability of model systems. Extrapolating from our understanding of rodent cortical development, we have developed a robust, multistep process for human cortical development from pluripotent stem cells: directed differentiation of human embryonic stem (ES) and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to cortical stem and progenitor cells, followed by an extended period of cortical neurogenesis, neuronal terminal differentiation to acquire mature electrophysiological properties, and functional excitatory synaptic network formation. We found that induction of cortical neuroepithelial stem cells from human ES cells and human iPS cells was dependent on retinoid signaling. Furthermore, human ES cell and iPS cell differentiation to cerebral cortex recapitulated in vivo development to generate all classes of cortical projection neurons in a fixed temporal order. This system enables functional studies of human cerebral cortex development and the generation of individual-specific cortical networks ex vivo for disease modeling and therapeutic purposes.

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Figure 1: Directed differentiation of human ES and iPS cells to cortical stem and progenitor cells.
Figure 2: PSC-derived cortical stem/progenitor cells form a polarized neuroepithelium in vitro analogous to the cortical ventricular zone.
Figure 3: Cortical rosettes differentiated from PSCs generate basal progenitor and outer radial glial cells.
Figure 4: PSC-derived cortical stem cells produce cortical glutamatergic projection neurons before astrocytes.
Figure 5: Production of human cortical excitatory neurons from PSCs in vitro recapitulates in vivo development.
Figure 6: PSC-derived cortical neurons differentiate to acquire mature electrophysiological properties.
Figure 7: Formation of functional excitatory synapses among PSC-derived cortical projection neurons.


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We thank L. Vallier (Cambridge) and Y. Takashima for kindly providing human iPS cell lines and J. Nichols (Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Research, Cambridge) for providing the Edi2 human ES cell line. We also thank the members of the Livesey laboratory for their contributions, comments and input to this research. Y.S. was supported by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Dorothy Hodgkin Studentship. P.K. was supported by the University of Cambridge/Wellcome Trust PhD Programme in Developmental Biology. This research benefits from core support to the Gurdon Institute from the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK and grants to F.J.L. from the Wellcome Trust and Alzheimer's Research UK.

Author information




Y.S., P.K., H.P.C.R. and F.J.L. designed the study. Y.S., P.K. and J.S. carried out the experiments. Y.S., P.K., H.P.C.R. and F.J.L. analyzed the data. Y.S., P.K., H.P.C.R. and F.J.L. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Frederick J Livesey.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Text and Figures

Supplementary Figures 1–8 (PDF 0 kb)

Supplementary Movie

Interkinetic nuclear migration, apical and basal mitoses in cortical rosettes. Time-lapse movie of the hESC-derived cortical rosette shown in Figure 2. In the initial frames the blue arrow indicates the apical progenitor and the yellow arrowhead indicates the basal progenitor shown in Figure 2. Frames were collected at 15 minute intervals. (MOV 1432 kb)

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Shi, Y., Kirwan, P., Smith, J. et al. Human cerebral cortex development from pluripotent stem cells to functional excitatory synapses. Nat Neurosci 15, 477–486 (2012).

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