Could the Use of Ultrasound Become an Effective Therapy Against Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most debilitating and widespread diseases on the planet. The condition starts in many of the aged with short-term memory loss, followed gradually by more severe mental deficits. No cure exists, and what treatments are available only slow the progression of the disease.
Alzheimer’s afflicts the great and small with equal devastation. President Ronald Reagan and actor Charlton Heston both died of the disease. Alzheimer’s is as devastating to caregivers in Houston, usually spouses and children, as it is to those suffering from it. Management of the disease takes up a significant portion of health care costs because of the need to take care of elderly patients who increasingly become unable to care for themselves.
Physically, Alzheimer’s is characterized by a buildup of two proteins called beta-amyloid and tau, which causes brain helper cells to form neurofibrillary tangles. Researchers do not know for sure why this process starts with some people and not others. Nor are they certain what role the tangles play in wreaking havoc on the brain.
However, medical researchers have determined that using antibodies and activating the body’s immune system to attack the tau proteins will in turn clear away the beta-amyloid plaques that inhibit brain function in Alzheimer’s patients. The trick is getting the antibodies and immune cells past the blood-brain barrier. The BBB blocks certain toxins from entering the brain from the bloodstream; however, it also stops drugs that might help treat Alzheimer’s and certain cancer tumors.
Back in 2015, researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute in Australia used an ultrasound to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier in mice. Antibodies rushed through the temporary breach to activate a type of microglia that devoured the beta-amyloid. Later, the Australian researchers were able to do the same with antibodies that targeted the tau proteins. The mice showed a marked improvement in their ability to traverse a maze.
Starting in June 2017 the first human trials began at the Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto, Canada. Phase One of the study will consist of six Alzheimer’s patients between the ages of 50 and 85. If the treatment causes an improvement in cognitive function in the human patients, an effective treatment for a disease that afflicts tens of millions of people worldwide will have been developed.
Opening the blood-brain barrier will not necessarily result in an instant cure. However, it will allow researchers to test a variety of immunotherapies and drugs that could treat not only Alzheimer’s but a wide variety of other brain diseases, including inoperable tumors. Success would be a great quantum leap forward in the treatment of these ailments.