Researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), part of Australia’s University of Queensland, have shown that non-invasive ultrasound technology can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and restore memory in mice. This innovative, drug-free method breaks apart the neurotoxic amyloid plaques that result in memory loss and cognitive decline.
“The Government’s $9 million investment into this technology was to drive discoveries into clinics, and today’s announcement indicates that together with the Queensland Brain Institute, it was a worthwhile investment,” said Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk. “I want my Government to encourage more of this type of innovative research. Our Advance Queensland initiative aims to increase research and discoveries like this and to put this state’s research at the forefront internationally by supporting local researchers and helping to keep them in Queensland. These exciting findings will hopefully be of benefit to all Australians in the future.”
Professor Jürgen Götz, study co-author, believes the new method could revolutionise Alzheimer’s treatment: “We’re extremely excited by this innovation of treating Alzheimer’s without using drug therapeutics. The ultrasound waves oscillate tremendously quickly, activating microglial cells that digest and remove the amyloid plaques that destroy brain synapses. The word ‘breakthrough’ is often mis-used, 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.”
There are now 343,000 people living with dementia in Australia, a number forecast to reach 900,000 by 2050. Worldwide, the figure today is 50 million, which is projected to hit 135 million by 2050, with Alzheimer’s among the leading causes. Over 7.7 million new cases are reported globally each year (equivalent to about one new case every four seconds) and the rate is accelerating as people live longer and their brains become more susceptible to this terrible condition. It will place enormous financial and other burdens on society in the future, unless new treatments can be developed.
Handheld brain scanning device of the 2050s. Credit: Štěpán Kápl / Dreamstime
“With an aging population placing an increasing burden on health systems, an important factor is cost. Other potential drug treatments using antibodies will be expensive,” explained Götz. “In contrast, this method uses relatively inexpensive ultrasound and microbubble technology, which is non-invasive and appears highly effective.”
The new treatment developed by QBI is able to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier – a layer that normally protects our brains from bacteria and other potential threats, but also blocks drugs from entering and therefore prohibits traditional medicine. By using ultrasound, microglial cells (which are basically a type of support cell for removing waste) were stimulated to engulf and clear toxic protein clumps, fully restoring memory functions in 75% of the mice. This was achieved without damaging brain tissue.
“With our approach, the blood-brain barrier’s opening is only temporary for a few hours, so it quickly restores its protective role,” Professor Götz added.
The next step will be to scale the treatment to higher animal models (sheep), followed by human clinical trials beginning in 2017.
The findings were published in Science Translational Medicine.