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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Niche-dependent development of functional neuronal networks from embryonic stem cell-derived neural populations

Sebastian Illes, Stephan Theiss, Hans-Peter Hartung, Mario Siebler and Marcel Dihné*

Author Affiliations

Department of Neurology, Heinrich-Heine University, Moorenstr. 5, 40225 Düsseldorf, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:93  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-93

Published: 6 August 2009



The present work was performed to investigate the ability of two different embryonic stem (ES) cell-derived neural precursor populations to generate functional neuronal networks in vitro. The first ES cell-derived neural precursor population was cultivated as free-floating neural aggregates which are known to form a developmental niche comprising different types of neural cells, including neural precursor cells (NPCs), progenitor cells and even further matured cells. This niche provides by itself a variety of different growth factors and extracellular matrix proteins that influence the proliferation and differentiation of neural precursor and progenitor cells. The second population was cultivated adherently in monolayer cultures to control most stringently the extracellular environment. This population comprises highly homogeneous NPCs which are supposed to represent an attractive way to provide well-defined neuronal progeny. However, the ability of these different ES cell-derived immature neural cell populations to generate functional neuronal networks has not been assessed so far.


While both precursor populations were shown to differentiate into sufficient quantities of mature NeuN+ neurons that also express GABA or vesicular-glutamate-transporter-2 (vGlut2), only aggregate-derived neuronal populations exhibited a synchronously oscillating network activity 2-4 weeks after initiating the differentiation as detected by the microelectrode array technology. Neurons derived from homogeneous NPCs within monolayer cultures did merely show uncorrelated spiking activity even when differentiated for up to 12 weeks. We demonstrated that these neurons exhibited sparsely ramified neurites and an embryonic vGlut2 distribution suggesting an inhibited terminal neuronal maturation. In comparison, neurons derived from heterogeneous populations within neural aggregates appeared as fully mature with a dense neurite network and punctuated vGlut2 expression within presynaptic vesicles. Also those NPCs that had migrated away from adherent neural aggregates maintained their ability to generate a synchronously oscillating neuronal network, even if they were separated from adherent aggregates, dissociated and re-plated.


These findings suggest that the complex environment within niches and aggregates of heterogeneous neural cell populations support the generation of fully mature neurons and functional neuronal networks from ES cell-derived neural cells. In contrast, homogeneous ES cell-derived NPCs within monolayer cultures exhibited an impaired functional neuronal maturation.