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Environ Health Perspect. 2009 Jul;117(7):1131-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.0800207. Epub 2009 Feb 26.

Human neurospheres as three-dimensional cellular systems for developmental neurotoxicity testing.

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Institut für Umweltmedizinische Forschung gGmbH an der Heinrich Heine-Universität, Toxicology, Düsseldorf, Germany.

Erratum in

  • Environ Health Perspect. 2009 Aug;117(8):A342.



Developmental neurotoxicity (DNT) of environmental chemicals is a serious threat to human health. Current DNT testing guidelines propose investigations in rodents, which require large numbers of animals. With regard to the "3 Rs" (reduction, replacement, and refinement) of animal testing and the European regulation of chemicals [Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH)], alternative testing strategies are needed in order to refine and reduce animal experiments and allow faster and less expensive screening.


The goal of this study was to establish a three-dimensional test system for DNT screening based on human fetal brain cells.


We established assays suitable for detecting disturbances in basic processes of brain development by employing human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs), which grow as neurospheres. Furthermore, we assessed effects of mercury and oxidative stress on these cells.


We found that human neurospheres imitate proliferation, differentiation, and migration in vitro. Exposure to the proapoptotic agent staurosporine further suggests that human neurospheres possess functioning apoptosis machinery. The developmental neurotoxicants methylmercury chloride and mercury chloride decreased migration distance and number of neuronal-like cells in differentiated hNPCs. Furthermore, hNPCs undergo caspase-independent apoptosis when exposed toward high amounts of oxidative stress.


Human neurospheres are likely to imitate basic processes of brain development, and these processes can be modulated by developmental neurotoxicants. Thus, this three-dimensional cell system is a promising approach for DNT testing.


DNT; apoptosis; differentiation; human neurospheres; mercury; migration; proliferation

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