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Mental wellness

April 08, 2015

Real hope for an Alzheimer’s cure

Ultrasound technique shows promise for treating Alzheimer’s in mice, with fewer side effects; human trials could be three to five years off.

When Jürgen Götz and his team saw the initial results of their research, they were excited to realize Götz’s theory for an ultrasound cure for Alzheimer’s disease seemed to show promise. “We were surprised to find such a remarkable effect,” says Götz, director of the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

The findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Translational Medicine. Götz was senior author of the paper. His research team studied mice that were genetically engineered to produce amyloid plaques -- abnormal clumps of a protein typically found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The plaques are one of the hallmarks of the disease. (The other is “tangles,” or fibrous clumps inside nerve cells that end up choking off living cells.)

Götz’s team applied ultrasound waves to the brains of the mice once a week for seven weeks, and the result was a 50% reduction in the plaques. What’s more, the treated mice appeared to be unharmed, with no tissue damage, and were able to do mental tests after the treatment — such as negotiating a maze — just as well as healthy mice.

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, the disease is the most common form of dementia. Progressive degeneration of brain cells causes thinking ability and memory to deteriorate, and it’s irreversible. Alzheimer’s disease also affects behaviour, mood and emotions, and the ability to perform daily living activities.

Impact of Alzheimer’s

With some 750,000 Canadians living with some form of dementia, a number that’s projected to almost double by 2031, the disease has a profound impact — including on the economy. Numbers put out by the Society in 2012 show that “the combined annual direct (medical) and indirect (lost earnings) cost of dementia in Canada is $33 billion. This number will skyrocket to $293 billion a year by 2040.”

There are drugs in development that offer hope for Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families. One drug in a human trial in the U.S. recently showed promise for reducing amyloid plaques on the brain, although there were some side effects; more research is needed. And vaccines are in development, too. But if the ultrasound method— Götz sometimes refers to it as “brain-dialysis” — is proven to work in humans, not only would it be a drug-free option in the arsenal, but also, “it would be significantly cheaper than any of the vaccines that are currently being developed,” says Götz. “If it were to work in humans, it would most likely not have the inevitable side effects of pharmacological interventions.”

Brighter Life asked Götz if he had a personal reason to focus on Alzheimer’s disease. “When I entered this field of research, I did not personally know anyone with the disease,” he says. “Now I know many, including in my extended family, and that highly motivates me to find a cure.”

The researchers are starting experiments in larger animals this year. As far as clinical trials in humans are concerned, Götz predicts that a three- to five-year time frame to start those seems realistic. “I am very excited and cautiously enthusiastic that the approach will work in humans,” he says.

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