New Research: Ultrasound Reverses Effects of Alzheimer's in Mice

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Alzheimer's Research/ DrAfter123 Digital Vision Vectors/ Getty Images.

Research recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine outlines what has been called a 'breakthrough' in the fight against Alzheimer's disease, according to researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia.

The Research Study

The study was conducted on 20 mice who were engineered to develop the Alzheimer's-like buildup of plaque in their brains. (The inability to clear the brain of extra deposits of protein- plaques- is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease.) These mice demonstrated a decline in their cognitive ability as measured by three different tests, including the ability to navigate a maze- a standard test used to assess memory and spatial ability in mice.

Half of the mice were treated with high energy sound waves administered through a scanning ultrasound treatment and half were treated with a placebo (fake treatment). The mice received the ultrasound treatment weekly for five to seven weeks.

At the conclusion of the experiment, researchers studied the mice's brains and found a significant decrease of plaques in the mice who received the ultrasound treatment. In other words, the ultrasound treatment helped rid the mice of extra protein deposits in their brains that were interfering with healthy brain functioning. More importantly, these mice regained the ability to navigate the maze task equally as well as normal mice who did not have the equivalent of Alzheimer's disease. The ultrasound-treated mice also improved in the two other tests to assess their cognition.

    Not only did the ultrasound treatment improve memory in the mice, they also did not appear to develop any negative side effects from the ultrasound treatment.

    Why Is This Research Being Called a 'Breakthrough'?

    Science has been battling the question of how to treat Alzheimer's disease for many years with very little success.

    There are currently four medications that are prescribed to treat Alzheimer's disease, and their effectiveness is quite limited. Medications also have the potential for multiple side effects and negative interactions with other drugs.

    Researchers have also evaluated many non-drug interventions, some of which have slowed down the progression of dementia symptoms but none that have cured the disease.

    Can This Type of Ultrasound Treatment Work in Humans?

    Here's the important question: Will this research, which really does appear to be groundbreaking, be able to be applied to humans with Alzheimer's disease? Will it work?

    According to the US National Library of Medicine, there are a few challenges in translating this research to humans. They point out that the human skull is thicker than that of mice so the ultrasound waves would need to be stronger. It's also unknown at what point in the development of Alzheimer's disease the ultrasound waves should be administered to humans to be most effective.

    Next Steps

    Although we are a long way off from declaring ultrasound waves to be an effective way to reverse some of the damage that Alzheimer's brings, this research certainly appears to be a hopeful development. We'll need more studies with animals, and eventually clinical trials with humans, to determine the effectiveness of this potential treatment, as well as to monitor over time for any side effects.

    Related Reading on Non-Drug Treatments for Alzheimer's Disease

    Sources:

    National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. 12 Mar 2015. Ultrasound 'breakthrough' in treating Alzheimer's in mice. 

    Science Translational Medicine. 11 March 2015: Vol. 7, Issue 278, p. 278. Scanning ultrasound removes amyloid-β and restores memory in an Alzheimer’s disease mouse model. http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/7/278/278ra33.abstract?sid=8b61377d-2a42-419d-8197-a3ec8d1eb503

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