3-D ‘mini-brain’ could be future of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s research

A small brain could lead to big changes for brain research.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have grown balls of human neurons and other cells that mimic some of the brain's structures and functionality. These 3-D "mini-brains" could replace the hundreds of thousands of animals now used in neurology labs for brain research and drug testing.

"Ninety-five percent of drugs that look promising when tested in animal models fail once they are tested in animal models fail once they are tested in humans at great expense of time and money," says study leader Thomas Hartung and professor in a university-issued news release. "While rodent models have been useful, we are not 150-pound rats.

"And even though we are not balls of cells either, you can often get much better information from these balls of cells than from rodents. We believe that the future of brain research will include less reliance on animals, (and) more reliance on human cell-based models."

Hartung and his colleagues used cells from the skin of healthy adults to create the mini-brains, but cells from people with certain genetic traits or certain diseases can be used to create mini-brains to study various types of pharmaceuticals. He says the mini-brains can be used to study Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and autism. Projects to study viral infections, trauma and stroke are already underway.

The mini-brains are 350 micrometers in diameter, about the size of a housefly's eye. Hundreds to thousands of exact copies can be produced in each batch, important for drug testing as trials need to be standardized and reproducible. Hartung is applying for a patent and is developing a commercial entity to produce mini-brains as early as this year. 

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia