Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2017

Author's Department

Biomedical Engineering

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Facilitating plasticity after spinal cord injury tends to be the focus of most modern interventions for this condition. In particular, stem cell therapies attempt to both modulate and mimic some of the native plasticity after injury through multiple mechanisms. One such mechanism, the creation of new exogenous relay circuits bridging the injury, has been explored extensively, revealing serious impediments to its optimization and adoption for clinical settings. Our collaborator, the Sakiyama-Elbert group, has spent years addressing the first limitation, the variability of cellular graft composition, by perfecting protocols to generate embryonic stem cell (ESC)-derived populations of neurons with pre-determined genetic identity. Recently, they developed a protocol to develop highly-enriched populations of Chx10-expressing V2a interneurons (INs), a ventral interneuron population that has garnered recent interest due to its role in central pattern generating function and favorable phenotypic properties. This predominantly glutamatergic and long, ipsilaterally projecting population appears to be a prime candidate for transplantation therapies for SCI, especially for the creation of relay circuits that can potentially circumnavigate injuries. The research documented in this thesis attempts to begin to address the second limitation of stem cell transplantation therapy, our minimal understanding of intra-graft network connectivity after transplantation. Due to the limitations of current techniques for evaluating the connectivity of populations like ESC-derived V2a INs, the relationship between functional recovery and the functional properties of the novel circuits formed within the graft still eludes researchers. This thesis focuses on the development of an assay capable of rapidly detecting connectivity within ESC-derived candidate populations. By extending previous work in the stem cell field, we combine in vitro multi-electrode arrays (MEAs) with an extensively studied metric of functional connectivity, cross-correlation, to detect and characterize individual functional connections between ESC-derived neurons. We first validated this assay by culturing ESC-derived populations differentiated for increased expression of Chx10 on MEAs. We found that both dissociated and aggregated cultures formed functional busting networks with significant functional connectivity detected with the use of Between-Sample Analysis of Connectivity, a methodology originally developed for in vitro circadian networks. Aggregated networks, however, had much more consistent electrode coverage and individual neuron detection that dissociated networks. After this validation study, we characterized the functional connectivity within highly-enriched populations of ESC-V2a INs, comparing their connectivity to populations of ESC-MN/glia and mixed populations of ESC-V2a/MN/glia. We found that ESC-MN/glia aggregates formed active networks with a variety of activity and functional connectivity that was dependent on the transmission of glutamate. ESC-V2a INs could only survive out to the 4-week time point if they were grown in media conditioned with glial factors, but these cultures still lacked spontaneous extracellular activity. Mixed ESC-V2a/MN/glia populations formed the most active networks and had thousands of detectable connections which were also dependent on glutamate transmission. Application of glycine antagonist modulated network activity but the underlying cause is fairly inconclusive due to possible secondary effects. High growth factor concentrations in the growth media actually decreased network activity and detectable functional connections in the mixed populations. All of these findings in this proof of concept study collectively suggest that a mixture of ESC-V2a INs and ESC-MN/glia may be the most viable candidate for transplantation and sets the stage for future investigations into the manipulability of their connectivity with electrical stimulation, as well as scaled versions of this assay performed in combination with animal studies.


English (en)


Dennis L. Barbour

Committee Members

Daniel Moran, James Huettner, Shelly Sakiyama-Elbert, Paul Stein,


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