Scientists have created "Alzheimer's in a dish," a petri dish with human brain cells that have developed structures associated with Alzheimer's disease and this offers a promising option for effectively studying the disease and could lead to the development of an effective treatment.

The breakthrough, which was described in a study published in the journal Nature on Oct. 12, reproduces the events that lead to the development of Alzheimer's. The researchers achieved this by growing human brain cells in a gel and then infusing the neurons with genes for the disease. After a few weeks, the cells develop the plaques and tangles that characterize Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia affecting about 30 million individuals worldwide.

The other best option for researchers studying Alzheimer's is to use mice but this is time consuming and involves having mice develop an imperfect form of the disease. Mouse models, for instance, do not develop the neurofibrillary tangles, which are attributed for majority of the damage caused by the disease. Some developed tangles but not plaques. Thus, the drugs that appeared to have cured the disease in mice could turn out ineffective to humans.

The researchers who developed the system for six weeks found that the neural cells associated with the fast-progressing form of Alzheimer's were marked by increased levels of beta-amyloid and the presence of neurofibrillary tangles.

Although the system also lacks other important components that contribute to the devastation once the disease has set in, it allows researchers to conduct comparatively fast and cheap tests on potential treatments that could curb the development of Alzheimer's.

Massachusetts General Hospital Genetics and Aging Research Unit director and study author Rudolph Tanzi said that with the new system, researchers can test thousands of drugs in a short period of time.

"Testing drugs in mouse models that typically have brain deposits of either plaques or tangles, but not both, takes more than a year and is very costly," Tanzi said. "With our three-dimensional model that recapitulates both plaques and tangles, we now can screen hundreds of thousands of drugs in a matter of months."

Tanzi and colleagues have so far found that increasing the levels of a particular enzyme appear to curb the formation of the tangles. They also said that their system can be used for other neurodegenerative disorders.

"Our unique strategy for recapitulating Alzheimer's disease pathology in a 3D neural cell culture model should also serve to facilitate the development of more precise human neural cell models of other neurodegenerative disorders," the researchers said.

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