Scientists have found a way to replicate human brain cells for use in Alzheimer’s research, according to an article in the New York Times this week. Lead researcher Rudolph E. Tanzi of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and his colleagues were able, for the first time, to grow human brain cells in a petri dish, where the neurons formed networks as they do in an actual brain. Their study was published in the online version of the journal Nature.

The researchers have resolved a long-standing problem with Alzheimer’s research, the New York Times reports. Previously, drugs had to be tested in mice, which have a different form of the disease. With human brain cells grown in a gel, the cells form the same kinds of networks that they do in a real brain. After implanting the cells with Alzheimer’s genes, the researchers began to see plaques and tangles develop—the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s.

“It is a giant step forward for the field,” said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Duke University, in a recent interview. “It could dramatically accelerate testing of new drug candidates.”

This discovery will allow researchers to quickly test drugs that could slow or stop the progression of the disease. In fact, Dr. Tanzi and his colleagues have started to test 1,200 drugs currently on the market as well as 5,000 experimental ones. This huge project would have been impossible using mice, but with the new petri dish system, says Dr. Tanzi, “we can test hundreds of thousands of drugs in a matter of months.”

The full text of Dr. Tanzi’s study, along with videos showing Alzheimer’s brain cells in the culture, can be found online in the current issue of Nature.

Editor’s Note: On Saturday, November 1, an enthusiastic team of PAR employees will be participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s here in Tampa, Florida—one of a series of walks to benefit the Alzheimer's Association, which is the largest voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support, and research. To find a walk near you, click on the link and visit their Web site today!