Nearly 50 million people around the world are in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease, a debilitating illness that accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. Scientists have had no luck uncovering successful treatments to stall, let alone cure, Alzheimer’s. A new study published March 11, 2015 in Science Translational Medicine, however, reveals a promising new Alzheimer’s treatment that could give us a leg-up on this particularly iron-willed disease.
Clearing Away the Plaque
Alzheimer’s disease is typically caused by the buildup of two kinds of lesions in the brain: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques are dense clusters of sticky beta-amyloid molecules that are lodged between brain neurons. Neurofibrillary tangles develop when defective tau proteins clump together into an insoluble mass inside brain neurons, causing microtubules to become twisted and thereby obstructing the transport of essential nutrients and organelles. Scientists have concentrated their efforts on finding a way to clear these amyloid plagues and neurofibrillary tangles from the brain, and it looks like Australian researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland may have discovered a way to wipe out amyloid plaques and restore memory.
Restore Memory Function with Ultrasound Technology
Researchers used a non-invasive ultrasound technology called focused therapeutic ultrasound to clear away the amyloid plaques that cause diminished memory and cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients. Ultrasound beams sent rapidly oscillating sound waves into the brain tissues of mice in order to open up the blood brain barrier. The blood brain barrier protects the brain by keeping bacteria and other invaders out. Once the sound waves opened up the blood brain barrier, waste removal cells called microglial cells moved in and cleared out plaque buildup in the brain.
Results showed that 75% of the mice tested had fully restored memories and that the ultrasound technology did not do any damage to surrounding brain tissues. The mice treated with ultrasound therapy also showed improvement in memory tests. This trial is, of course, preliminary, and researchers are now undergoing studies with higher animal models. Human trials for this Alzheimer’s treatment are slated to begin in 2017.
As for the promise this Alzheimer’s treatment shows, researcher Jürgen Götz says, “We’re extremely excited by this innovation of treating Alzheimer’s without using drug therapeutics. The word ‘breakthrough’ is often misused, but in this case I think this really does fundamentally change our understanding of how to treat this disease, and I foresee a great future for this approach.”