Brain-in-a-dish provides new model of human disease

September 10, 2015

In recent months CAARE has shared news of advances in three-dimensional human cell cultures that are increasingly able to simulate the structure and function of real organs.

Now we are excited to report that a team of scientists at the Ohio State University (OSU) have developed a human brain in a dish that is comparable to the fully matured organ.

The human stem cell-derived brain model is the most complete model of the human brain to date, analogous to the maturity of a 5-week old fetus, containing 99 percent of the genes present in the human fetal brain.


An image of the lab-grown brain labeled to show identifiable structures.
Photo courtesy of The Ohio State University

Dr. Rene Anand, the lead scientist on the project and a professor of biological chemistry and neuroscience at Ohio State says “It not only looks like the developing brain, its diverse cell types express nearly all genes like a brain.”

Dr. Anand was motivated to work on the human brain model after his attempts with animals to develop a drug for autism yielded disappointing results. “The power of this brain model bodes very well for human health because it gives us better and more relevant options to test and develop therapeutics other than rodents,” he said.


About the size of a pencil eraser, the model was created by reprogramming adult human skin cells into stem cells that subsequently could be engineered into neural cells.

The brain organoid took 15 weeks to develop and contains all the key areas of the brain, including a spinal cord, a complex of neural cells, normal cell signaling mechanisms and a retina. The model does not contain any vascular system to allow for blood flow, though Dr. Anand says that’s a goal. “If we let it go to 16 or 20 weeks, that might complete it, filling in that 1 percent of missing genes. We don’t know yet,” he said.

Dr. Anand and his research associate Susan McKay have begun to use the platform to create organoid models of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism in a dish.

 “It’s a scalable model that can be engineered to carry the genetic variants that give rise to all these diseases … and it gives us incredible access to things we never have done before,” Dr. Anand told The Washington Post. “We can screen drugs, we can ask questions, we can follow the development at every stage.” 

These and other neurological diseases do not naturally occur in animals. Typically they are induced by artificially inserting or removing genes in animals to create symptoms that only approximate the real disease in humans. They cause intense suffering and death for animals and overall have not yielded significant results for human disease.


This new brain model has the potential to dramatically alter the course of neuroscience research.

"We will have [a] more precise prediction of efficacy of therapy and possible side effects before we do clinical trials," Dr. Anand told The Huffington PostReducing reliance on animals improves research as they're "not as likely to predict clinical outcomes as human brain models."

Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Research (CAARE), is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization,  established to highlight and promote research without animals.

 CAARE’s mission is to reduce animal suffering by disseminating information about the power and progress of research without animals. 

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  • Barbara Stagno
    published this page in News 2015-09-10 14:45:05 -0400