Researchers in Australia have discovered a new way to use non-invasive ultrasound that may one day restore memory functions previously lost to Alzheimer’s disease.
Ultrasound is a well-known test that allows doctors to see inside your body to get an early peek at a growing baby, or to search for abnormalities in breast tissue.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition that gradually damages the brain. People with Alzheimer’s slowly lose memories, thinking skills and basic abilities to function in normal life.
Alzheimer’s disease is currently irreversible.
According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, with symptoms typically starting after age 60.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 5 million people in the United States are believed to have the disease. (2)
Alzheimer’s disease damages the brain by destroying neurons. Neurons are nerve cells with many branches. Messages pass from one nerve cell to another by jumping from branch to branch.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help messages jump across the gap from one nerve cell to another. (3)
Alzheimer’s disease interferes with both electrical signals inside a brain cell, and with the chemical neurotransmitters that help messages travel between cells.
Scientists believe there are two main components that block the brain’s signals in Alzheimer’s disease. One occurs when pieces of protein clump together, forming beta-amyloid plaques. These plaques can block signals from passing between nerve cells. (3)
A second defect that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease is the development of tangles.
In a healthy brain, parallel channels similar to railroad tracks allow food and other necessary materials to travel to all parts of the brain.
But in Alzheimer’s disease, those tracks become disordered, and form tangles that prevent nutrients from getting to cells. When this happens, the starved cells in the brain die.
Researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia are working on a way to remove beta-amyloid plaques. Their research was published in Science Translational Medicine.
The new treatment uses focused therapeutic ultrasound to beam sound waves into the brain. These sound waves oscillate very fast and appear to gently open up the blood-brain barrier. This barrier normally helps protect the brain from germs.
The waves also activate special cells that are responsible for removing waste from the brain. These activated cells are able to clear out the beta-amyloid clumps, restoring communication between nerve cells in the brain.
So far, the researchers have only tested their method on mice. They report that 75 percent of the mice that received the treatment had their memory function fully restored.
The researchers plan to advance their testing to larger animals soon and hope to begin human trials of the treatment in 2017.
Current treatments for Alzheimer’s disease use various medications to treat symptoms of the disease with a focus on maintaining mental function for as long as possible, managing symptoms and slowing the development of the disease.
If you have questions about brain function or Alzheimer’s disease, talk to your health care provider.
Reviewed March 16, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) Science Alert. New Alzheimer’s treatment fully restores memory function. Bec Crew. Web. March 15, 2016.
2) National Institute on Aging. Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. Web. March 15, 2016.
3) Alzheimer’s Association. Briaintour. Web. March 15, 2016.
4) National Institute on Aging. About Alzheimer’s Disease: Treatment. Web. March 15, 2016.