PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – New research is underway to find new and better treatment for diseases that impact the mind. Scientists say creating a 3D brain model will help doctors find more targeted and effective treatments for ailments such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Researchers are inching one step closer to building a brain in a petri dish.

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“Certainly keeping cells alive is not an easy thing to do,” said Leon Bellan, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University.

But the researchers at Vanderbilt have discovered that certain cells can live in a special gel outside of the body.

It’s all part of their process for creating 3D models of human organs, like the brain, to help propel the future of drug testing and disease research.

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“When people think about neuro-degeneration, they think about Alzheimer’s disease,” said Ethan Lippmann, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt, “but really there’s a lot of other facets of disease that are encompassed in dementia.”

They say the first step toward finding better treatments for brain diseases is creating organoids – or models of human organs.

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“It makes sense that we would have to have human models in a dish,” Lippmann said.

So far they’ve created a blood-brain-barrier model that protects brain cells. Now they’re looking to add other cells to the mix.

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“Once we have the brain, we would be more of a stage where we could test perspective drugs to see if we could correct diseases,” Lippmann said. “We would be equipped to study how the brain and its vasculature degrade in the face of a disease.

“We would be in a situation where we would have a very robust model system that we could then use to probe all of these things that we were really interested in, and then hopefully help bring drugs to the clinic faster.”

The researchers emphasize their work is all about science with brain cells inside the lab.

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They’re looking to better understand diseases with a special emphasis on Alzheimer’s, which impacts millions of families and treatments so far are limited.

Stephanie Stahl