Probe Into Brain’s Memory Center Could Solve Mystery of Alzheimer’s Cause

Probe Into Brain's Memory Center Could Solve Mystery of Alzheimer's Cause

U.S. researchers are developing a new tool—a multipurpose fiber that will provide a window into the deep brain—with the goal of learning how to slow down or even reverse memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.

Barely thicker than a strand of human hair, the tiny probe will be implanted into the brains of first mice, and potentially later humans, to help researchers study the buildup of proteins suspected to cause Alzheimer’s and test treatments to combat this.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans are currently living with the disease—a number that, on average, increases nearly every minute and is expected to quadruple by 2050.

The condition, the most common form of dementia, affects memory, cognitive ability and behavior, and it is progressive, meaning it worsens with time. At present, there is no cure. An artist’s impression of amyloid plaques The research is being undertaken by professors Xiaoting Jia and Harald Sontheimer of Virginia Tech and professor Song Hu of the Washington University in St. Louis.

Jia has witnessed the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s firsthand, after her grandmother developed the debilitating disease.

“Alzheimer’s is a devastating problem—I’ve seen firsthand how bad it could be,” the researcher explained in a statement.

This experience, she added, is why “it concerns me as an electrical engineer. I want to build tools and try to assist neuroscientists in solving brain problems.” The tool in question the trio are developing will allow researchers to explore the relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and the build-up of protein clumps known as “amyloids”, which are thought to disrupt cell function in the brain and even cause cell death.

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As Jia explains: “Amyloid deposits are the main feature for Alzheimer’s disease—and they begin developing years, even decades, before people show symptoms. It’s still a mystery how the deposits even begin.”

In fact, Jia notes, so far scientists have only proven that there is a correlation between the accumulation of amyloid plaques and Alzheimer’s.

It remains to be confirmed if the two have a causal link, and exactly what form this might take.

Scientists have observed that, early in the disease, the formation of amyloid deposits is accompanied by a reduction in the brain’s blood flow. Jia and her colleagues believe that this may starve neurons in the hippocampus of much-needed oxygen. Engineer Xiaoting Jia with an example fiber “A big problem in Alzheimer’s research is there are a lot of dysfunctions in the brain having to do with neurovascular changes, but we don’t totally understand how those changes impact memory loss and behaviors that eventually impair their life,” said Hu.

The biomedical engineer added: “Conventional techniques have provided an important understanding of neurons and vasculature, but there’s a technology limitation.”

Neuroscientists commonly use tools like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and electroencephalograms (EEG) to look inside the brain and measure its activity, but these techniques have limited spatial and temporal resolutions.

Other techniques are more precise, but more invasive too. Deep brain electrical stimulation, for example—which has been suggested could help reverse memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease—is typically conducted by surgically inserting electrodes into the head. A close-up of the example fiber The researchers’ fiber tool, in contrast, should offer a better look inside the brain, while calling for fewer and less complicated invasive surgeries.

Made of a flexible and durable polymer, the fiber should have long-lasting potential, allowing for ongoing studies of a given subject, while also carrying little to no risk of damage to the surrounding brain tissue.

It will enable a special camera known as an endoscope to take two different types of picture within the brain, allowing researchers to observe not only neuroactivity, but also the aggregation of amyloid deposits and blood flow within the brain.

“What we are doing here, together, is creating a device with which we can visualize the buildup of biomarkers that are the culprits of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Sontheimer.

The neuroscientist added: “Usually, you can’t access or image that part of the brain, but this device will provide access to the hippocampus—home of spatial memory and retention.”

Furthermore, the fiber’s hollow core could also be used to deliver either electrical pulses to the brain or drugs designed to combat amyloid buildup in the hopes of restoring blood flow in the brain, freeing-up communication between neurons, and restoring memory. Preform used to make the fiber The team is very much on deadline, having been given a high priority, 1-year grant by the National Institutes of Health—to the total sum of nearly $800,000—to create and test two prototype fibers.

If they meet these targets successfully, however, they may be able to apply for additional, multi-year funding to further develop their tool.

“This is a very ambitious goal, what we’re trying to do in one year,” Jia said.

She concluded: “The brain is very nuanced, with more than 80 billion neurons, and we’re still behind on fully understanding how the brain functions and how diseases are formed.” Xioating Jia at work in her laboratory Mark Dallas—a professor of cellular neuroscience from the University of Reading in England who is not involved in the study—told Newsweek : “This exciting research looks to target Alzheimer’s disease on several fronts and for the first time will provide an insight into real-time changes in the brain as the disease takes hold.

“Going forward it will also open up the potential to deliver a payload to tackle the disease at onset, rather than having to wait for wholescale changes to be evident.”

Molecular biologist professor Bart De Strooper of University College London—who was also not involved in the study—told Newsweek : “There is a thick skull around the brain, which makes it difficult to pick up the early signs of disease and the acute changes in the brain upon drug delivery.

“I do not know whether this team will succeed, but it is certainly a fantastic way forward. We need more sensitive and more direct ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease before it actually starts to cause dementia, but we currently have little tools to do so.”His colleague Dr. Marc Busche agreed, adding: “It […]


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