The Effects of Serum Removal on Gene Expression and Morphological Plasticity Markers in Differentiated SH-SY5Y Cells

Alix C. Thomson*, Teresa Schuhmann, Tom A. de Graaf, Alexander T. Sack, Bart P.F. Rutten, Gunter Kenis

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Despite the widespread use of the SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cell line in modeling human neurons in vitro, protocols for growth, differentiation and experimentation differ considerably across the literature. Many studies fully differentiate SH-SY5Y cells before experimentation, to investigate plasticity measures in a mature, human neuronal-like cell model. Prior to experimentation, serum is often removed from cell culture media, to arrest the cell growth cycle and synchronize cells. However, the exact effect of this serum removal before experimentation on mature, differentiated SH-SY5Y cells has not yet been described. In studies using differentiated SH-SY5Y cells, any effect of serum removal on plasticity markers may influence results. The aim of the current study was to systematically characterize, in differentiated, neuronal-like SH-SY5Y cells, the potentially confounding effects of complete serum removal in terms of morphological and gene expression markers of plasticity. We measured changes in commonly used morphological markers and in genes related to neuroplasticity and synaptogenesis, particularly in the BDNF-TrkB signaling pathway. We found that complete serum removal from already differentiated SH-SY5Y cells increases neurite length, neurite branching, and the proportion of cells with a primary neurite, as well as proportion of βIII-Tubulin and MAP2 expressing cells. Gene expression results also indicate increased expression of PSD95 and NTRK2 expression 24 h after serum removal. We conclude that serum deprivation in differentiated SH-SY5Y cells affects morphology and gene expression and can potentially confound plasticity-related outcome measures, having significant implications for experimental design in studies using differentiated SH-SY5Y cells as a model of human neurons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1829-1839
Number of pages11
JournalCellular and Molecular Neurobiology
Issue number6
Early online date3 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022


  • SH-SY5Y cells
  • Serum deprivation
  • Plasticity
  • Human neuron model

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