Neural tube defects affect over 300,000 births a year globally. Furthermore, in 2012, it was estimated approximately 270,000 people live with a spinal cord injury in the United States with the majority of injuries occurring between the ages of 16 and 30. Better understanding of neural tube development and mature spinal cord neural circuits can lead to development of therapies for spinal cord injuries as well as neural tube defects.
Throughout spinal cord development, the formation and organization of cell networks in the spinal cord is critical for correct development of motor function. Our current understanding of cell networks is based on in vivo animal models and experiments of electrical activity. Also, directed differentiation of neural cell types has been limited mostly to motor neurons, neglecting other neuronal cell types that are important players in motor circuits. The goal of our work is to develop an in vitro model of the developing neural tube from pluripotent stem cells to elucidate neuronal networks and to use the model as a platform to study spinal cord injury, various neurological diseases, and neural tube defects such as spina bifida.