Improved Scalability of Neuron-Based Phenotypic Screening Assays for Therapeutic Discovery in Neuropsychiatric Disorders

Mol Neuropsychiatry. 2018 Feb;3(3):141-150. doi: 10.1159/000481731. Epub 2017 Nov 17.


There is a pressing need to improve approaches for drug discovery related to neuropsychiatric disorders (NSDs). Therapeutic discovery in neuropsychiatric disorders would benefit from screening assays that can measure changes in complex phenotypes linked to disease mechanisms. However, traditional assays that track complex neuronal phenotypes, such as neuronal connectivity, exhibit poor scalability and are not compatible with high-throughput screening (HTS) procedures. Therefore, we created a neuronal phenotypic assay platform that focused on improving the scalability and affordability of neuron-based assays capable of tracking disease-relevant phenotypes. First, using inexpensive laboratory-level automation, we industrialized primary neuronal culture production, which enabled the creation of scalable assays within functioning neural networks. We then developed a panel of phenotypic assays based on culturing of primary neurons from genetically modified mice expressing HTS-compatible reporters that capture disease-relevant phenotypes. We demonstrated that a library of 1,280 compounds was quickly screened against both assays using only a few litters of mice in a typical academic laboratory setting. Finally, we implemented one assay in a fully automated high-throughput academic screening facility, illustrating the scalability of assays designed using this platform. These methodological improvements simplify the creation of highly scalable neuron-based phenotypic assays designed to improve drug discovery in CNS disorders.

Keywords: Autism; Molecular imaging; Neuroscience; Synaptogenesis; Therapeutic discovery.