Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA; Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and Department of Pathology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Electronic address: [Email]
Human pluripotent stem cells can be rapidly converted into functional neurons by ectopic expression of proneural transcription factors. Here we show that directly reprogrammed neurons, despite their rapid maturation kinetics, can model teratogenic mechanisms that specifically affect early neurodevelopment. We delineated distinct phases of in vitro maturation during reprogramming of human neurons and assessed the cellular phenotypes of valproic acid (VPA), a teratogenic drug. VPA exposure caused chronic impairment of dendritic morphology and functional properties of developing neurons, but not those of mature neurons. These pathogenic effects were associated with VPA-mediated inhibition of the histone deacetylase (HDAC) and glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3) pathways, which caused transcriptional downregulation of many genes, including MARCKSL1, an actin-stabilizing protein essential for dendritic morphogenesis and synapse maturation during early neurodevelopment. Our findings identify a developmentally restricted pathogenic mechanism of VPA and establish the use of reprogrammed neurons as an effective platform for modeling teratogenic pathways.