Alzheimer’s disease. The name alone strikes fear. Many of us have seen loved ones battle the relentlessly cruel illness. Who has not worried that simple forgetfulness might be a first sign that it has already taken hold?
The field of Alzheimer’s research has been one of hope usually followed by much disappointment. A 2019 PBS News Hour program exploring the potential to use ultrasound to fight Alzheimer’s observed that, so far, there are no effective drugs to treat Alzheimer’s despite over 700 clinical trials. One of the researchers interviewed for the program, Dr. David Knopman, Professor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, said that some of the drugs had actually made people worse.1
A central problem in finding an effective treatment is getting drugs past the “blood-brain barrier” (BBB) which is our protective shield against foreign substances in the blood from entering our brains. In looking for ways to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, scientists have found ultrasound to be an encouraging tool. Initial work by an Australian team had shown that ultrasound could reduce amyloid plaques (responsible for cognitive impairment) and partially restore memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s. In 2018, amid great fanfare, West Virginia University (WVU) announced that a neuroscience team there was the first to use ultrasound in a phase II clinical trial to treat Alzheimer’s in a human.3
A “phase II” clinical trial follows successful work during a phase I trial which had aimed to evaluate safety. In this case, researchers at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto had shown during a phase I trial that they could safely open and close the blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s patients. A physician at Sunnybrook explained that they hoped their work would pave the way for next steps, “By opening up the BBB using low frequency ultrasound, we’ve taken a small but important step that opens up a whole new vista of possibilities. The hope is there may be a way to eventually open up multiple little windows, in a gentle way, in order to get large molecules like drugs and even stem cells into the brain. But we need to take it one step at a time.” 4
— Linda Girgis, MD (@DrLindaMD) November 2, 2018
Building on the work of the Canadians, WVU’s phase II trial was the first to successfully use focused ultrasound to treat a patient with early-stage Alzheimer’s. The patient was not just any patient, she was Judi Polak, a beloved former WVU Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care nurse in her early sixties who was first diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s five years earlier.4
Doctors used a helmet fitted with 1,000 probes that directed ultrasound waves at cognitive centers in Judi’s brain along with microscopic oscillating bubbles that opened her BBB. Judi received two more treatments and her medical team has continued to document her cognitive functions since her start in the trial.
One year later, the head of WVU’s research team, Dr. Ali Rezai, told WV News, “’Judi is doing well. The family indicates there are benefits and that is encouraging for us. We need to wait so we can get the objective, clinic memory data and all of that is ongoing right now. We want to review all the patients and provide group data, which is important.’”5 Seven patients have been treated so far, and many more patients must be studied to gain sufficient data to determine overall success in reducing plaques and reducing cognitive decline.
Meanwhile, Judi still reports to the Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where she volunteers as a cuddler to premature newborns. A profile of Judi and her husband, Mark, who has worked alongside her for years as chief of Neonatology at WVU School of Medicine, summed up her courage in being part of the groundbreaking clinical trial, “Rather than watch her memories fade away, she and her family decided that memories are worth fighting for, and resolved that they would be part of the cure.6 Judi herself says, “My takeaway would be to keep fighting. It may not be for me, but it’s going to be helpful for those in the future that are coming after me.”7
The West Virginia University study is still recruiting patients with mild Alzheimer’s to take part in this very promising phase II clinical trial to demonstrate the effectiveness of treating Alzheimer’s disease with this focused use of ultrasound waves to clear plaques that block critical connections in the brain. Information about current recruitment can be found here and in the video below: https://wvumedicine.org/rni/focused-ultrasound/
This is an important story that we will continue to follow!
1PBS NewsHour. “Can ultrasound be used to fight Alzheimer’s?” 11 October 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIQSFPhpG7A&feature=youtu.be
2Leinenga G, Götz J. Scanning ultrasound removes amyloid-beta and restores memory in an Alzheimer’s disease mouse model. Science Translational Medicine. 2015 Mar 11;7(278):278ra33. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25761889
3Dahlia J. Historic breakthrough: WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience team first to use ultrasound to treat Alzheimer’s. 28 October 2018. WVNews. https://www.wvnews.com/news/wvnews/historic-breakthrough-wvu-rockefeller-neuroscience-team-first-to-use-ultrasound/article_cfe6fefc-eee9-5add-b853-23642a0a91a7.html?fbclid=IwAR1n6Yw2VYaQYFL_URsBaS3gxpV5kbDlkUP2H8ff7TlArXdXuLnhokWYHdo
4First Alzheimer’s patient treated with focused ultrasound to open the blood-brain barrier. 2 May 2017. Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre News. https://sunnybrook.ca/media/item.asp?i=1562
5Young C. Historic breakthrough, Part 2: WVU Medicine seeks additional patients for Alzheimer’s trials. 24 November 2019. WVNews. https://www.wvnews.com/news/wvnews/wvu-medicine-seeks-additional-patients-for-alzheimer-s-trials/article_546e5d7a-2fa8-57d2-a936-f869aee81a35.html
6 Judi Polak, DNP, and Mark Polak, MD. WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute. https://wvurockefellersummit.com/judi-polak-dnp-and-mark-polak-md/
7 West Virginia University, “Judi’s Journey with Alzheimer’s.” https://www.facebook.com/WVUMedicine/videos/1894281290607244/
Amancia E. Toole
My name is Amancia E. Toole–my friends call me ET. I own this website and its accompanying Facebook page where I encourage you to share your thoughts on my articles. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology followed by a program in Medical Technology. I’ve taken courses in Environmental Studies at Johns Hopkins University and have always had a life-long interest in the environment. I recently shifted the focus of this website in order to “expand the conversation,” because I believe our planet is in crisis and so are we as a people. I now use my background in biology and in a microbiology laboratory to write and share solid science-based information about emerging research in climate disruption, the wholesale pollution of our environment and how our toxic world might be affecting our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. I also write about many of the promising advances in the area of human health and longevity.
I hope to slow the spread of misinformation on dubious sites making wild conspiracy story claims that add to the very real risks of mounting, global antibiotic resistance, and the possibility of emerging epidemics and pandemics due to propaganda that encourages misunderstandings surrounding vaccines, environmental toxins, and chemicals that are food.
It’s also my hope is to inspire anyone who visits my website and Facebook pages to learn and to take control of your destiny by making small changes to your lifestyle so that it’s a more sustainable and happy life: start by learning to grow a small garden or walk and bike a little more for your local errands. Or maybe, stop using plastic altogether and shop locally to help support small farmers. There’s also a lot of intriguing new research that supports the idea that a plant-based diet might help you, as well as our planet, live a longer, healthier life so give that a try to see if that works for you. Most importantly, I believe we all have the power to save our planet, to live longer and healthier lives and to be more kind to one another.