As the year 2015 unfolds, exciting new research is expanding the use of ultrasound technology as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool. Recently, researchers in Queensland, Australia reported on the results of a project in which ultrasound waves were used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, restoring memory in the process. The results suggest that Alzheimer’s treatment could eventually be revolutionized with the new technique.
Clearing the Brain of Memory Barriers
According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, there are an estimated 44 million people around the world who suffer with dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is one form. The debilitating disease has been undergoing intensive research in an effort to pinpoint its causes. Much has already been learned about Alzheimer’s, and each new discovery puts science one step closer to finding a reliable treatment. With the latest research reported in Australia, it appears that ultrasound waves will be the treatment of the future, offering hope to millions of people.
So far, medical researchers believe most Alzheimer’s Disease is the result of one of two conditions in the brain:
- Amyloid plaques – These plaques are found between the neurons. In an Alzheimer’s patient, clusters of beta-amyloid molecules clump together. The formation of a sticky protein plaque cluster impedes brain functioning.
- Neurofibrillary tangles – The neurofibrillary tangles are located inside the brain’s neurons. In this situation, defective tau proteins clump together to form a dense insoluble mass. The mass causes microtubules to get twisted, impeding the transport of critical nutrients and substances in the brain.
Alzheimer’s is believed to first begin at the base of the brain when someone is in their 50s, and it progresses from there. The debilitating disease destroys the quality of life for many years and places an enormous burden on those who are caregivers. There is no vaccine or preventive medicine, and no known cure. Some progress has been made in slowing down the advance of Alzheimer’s, but the current treatments rely on expensive therapeutic drugs.
Innovative Use of Ultrasound Technology
Researchers Gerhard Leinenga and Jurgen Gotz reported the results of an innovative approach to treating Alzheimer’s in the “Science Translational Medicine” journal (2015, 7(278)). Though researchers hesitate to use the word “breakthrough,” it is difficult to not be extremely hopeful. The researchers used ultrasound waves to break apart the amyloid plaques that are the cause of Alzheimer’s symptoms like memory loss and decline in cognitive functioning.
The experiments were conducted in an Alzheimer’s Disease mouse model. The ultrasound waves, directed at the brain’s plaque clumps, activated microglial cells. These cells digested and cleared amyloid plaques that interfere with brain synapses. The ultrasound waves temporarily unsealed the blood-brain barrier and improved memory.
In the past, potential treatments failed to safely penetrate the blood brain barrier’s endothelial walls. Now ultrasound has been able to open the barrier which then triggered the microglial cells. They do not know all the “whys” of the reported activity, but it is hoped that this will become a safe treatment for Alzheimer’s patients.
The use of ultrasound (Check 10 ultrasound specialists) is possible because technology has become so advanced that the ultrasound waves can open the blood brain barrier and activate microglial cells without doing any cellular damage to the brain. Microbubbles are first injected intravenously. The microbubbles line the walls of capillaries and blood vessels. Ultrasound is then delivered, forcing the bubbles to oscillate and gently ease the tight junctions between the endothelial cells. At this point the blood brain barrier is opened.
Looking Forward to the Future
Just being able to open the blood brain barrier was found to have therapeutic effects. The tricky next steps will be determining how to safely use the procedure in aging adults who may have compromised blood brain barriers. It is hoped that the Leinenga and Gotz research project leads to great strides being made in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The benefits of using ultrasound include:
- Ultrasound is inexpensive compared to other types of treatments
- It is non-invasive
- Expensive drugs are not needed
- It is highly effective
- The opening of the blood brain barrier is only temporary, meaning it can return to its protective duty within a few hours
Sonogram techs and Sonographers of the future will find they have an expanding role in delivering healthcare services as physician assistants. Though it will be a couple of years before the ultrasound treatment is tested on humans, it is highly likely this breakthrough will lead to even more applications of ultrasound technology in the treatment of human diseases in the future. In fact, the researchers are already talking about the possibly of using ultrasound to treat other neurodegenerative diseases.