Alzheimer's disease Featured Research

Behind the research: Study looks at fighting Alzheimer’s disease in a new way

In the first preclinical study of its kind, Dr. Isabelle Aubert, senior scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute, and PhD student Kristiana Xhima used focused ultrasound to deliver a treatment deep inside the brain to help boost the health of brain cells affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, Alzheimer’s disease impacts 419,000 Canadians who are 65 years and older. It’s estimated nine Canadians are diagnosed with dementia every hour.

Hallmarks of a brain with Alzheimer’s disease are “plaques” and “tangles” of toxic protein that develop and eventually prevent areas of the brain from producing nutrients and sending signals involved in the health of brain cells and communication. This causes brain cells to degenerate and die, which over time can affect how the brain functions. Most commonly, thinking, learning and memory are affected. Alzheimer’s disease has an impact on all aspects of a person’s life.

Breakthrough research

Dr. Aubert and Xhima also worked with Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, Vice-president, Research and Innovation at Sunnybrook, a trailblazer and pioneer of the focused ultrasound technology. Focused ultrasound harnesses the power of ultrasound waves and can reach specific areas deep in the brain without the need to make incisions to the skin or open the cranium. When guided by MRI, these ultrasound waves can be used to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier, which is a protective barrier that prevents toxic compounds or potentially helpful therapeutics in the bloodstream from entering the brain. Research has shown MRI-guided focused ultrasound can be used to precisely target areas in the brain and temporarily open the blood-brain barrier to safely allow medications injected into the bloodstream, to get through.

Dr. Aubert (left) and Kristiana Xhima (right) share their insight and thoughts on their study.

What did your study find?

Dr. Isabelle Aubert: In this preclinical study, we used MRI-guided focused ultrasound to non-invasively deliver a type of therapeutic to brain cells called cholinergic neurons, which are important for learning and memory, and are located deep inside the brain. This has never been done before. We found that stimulating a specific receptor on these neurons helped to restore the type of activity which is important for healthy brain cells, regeneration and communication (also known as neurotransmission). We also discovered that delivering this therapeutic agent helped brain cells function and communicate better.

What does this mean for patients and their families?

Dr. Aubert: In the past, the delivery of related therapeutics required invasive surgeries for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. While we are still in the very early stages of our research and there is still much research to be done, these results show the potential of using focused ultrasound to non-invasively deliver compounds to the brain that can stimulate brain health, protect against further damage, and promote their function for better quality of life.

How significant are these findings?

Kristiana Xhima: If we’re able to target Alzheimer’s disease early on, it could help with brain health in the long term. We can potentially protect these neurons early in the disease so that later on they’re healthier.

Dr. Aubert: The results of our preclinical study are significant in understanding how we can improve the health of brain cells. We provide evidence that targeting specific receptors with therapeutics is necessary to help improve and increase brain cell communication, and that it can be done precisely in a specific region to have positive impact in broader areas of the brain involved in learning and memory.

What’s next?

Dr. Aubert: The next stage of our study will investigate the impact of the treatment on learning and memory at the preclinical level.

It’s important to note that this is not a cure. Research at this fundamental level is important and required in order to discover promising new treatments that could one day help stop degeneration and maybe even promote regeneration of the brain in devastating brain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

This is the latest in innovative research at Sunnybrook investigating groundbreaking approaches to battling Alzheimer’s disease, a common, challenging, and debilitating type of dementia. From world-first studies aiming to detect genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s, to clinical trials targeting multiple regions of the brain with sound waves, research into how physical activity may help protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease, or the calming effect of  synthetic cannabinoid in treating agitation in Alzheimer’s patients, Sunnybrook researchers are on the leading edge of investigation into this devastating condition.

Learn more about the study in Science Advances

About the author

Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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