Applying ultrasound waves to the brain could be a revolutionary new way to treat dementia. The technique, which has been developed by scientists at Tohoku University in Japan, has been found to improve cognitive function in those with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
It is believed that using low-intensity pulsed ultrasound (LIPUS) improves blood vessel formation and nerve cell regeneration. This in turn has a positive impact on memory without having any known side effects so far.
Hiroaki Shimokawa, a cardiologist at the university, said: "The LIPUS therapy is a non-invasive physiotherapy that could apply to high-risk elderly patients without the need for surgery or anaesthesia, and could be used repeatedly."
The research was carried out in the wake of a previous study that found that LIPUS could be used to promote blood vessel formation for heart conditions. It is one of a number of approaches being explored that sees treatments designed for other illnesses rolled out for dementia sufferers.
Previous studies have also shown that LIPUS increases the rate of production of the type of proteins required for cell regeneration, growth and survival. It is thought that focusing LIPUS treatment on the hippocampus is particularly impactful on dementia, which makes sense as this is the area of the brain responsible for memory.
As this study is just the first example of LIPUS markedly improving cognitive function, more research would have to be done before it was made available to patients. Enhancing specific cells associated with the pathology of dementia is a route worth exploring in future.
Around 50 million people in the world have dementia and with ten million new cases being diagnosed each year, it is a problem that is only getting worse. With such an epidemic on the horizon, experts are doing what they can to advance the currently-limited treatments.
The most common causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia and there is no cure for either of these at present. A patient’s best hope is for signs of the disease to be picked up early and medication taken to slow down the loss of memory, but it cannot be halted altogether.
One of the reasons that it’s so difficult to treat dementia is that the cells that line the blood vessels in the brain are closely packed together. This forms a blood-brain barrier, stopping larger molecules from reaching the brain tissue.
As many of the potential treatments are made up of large molecules, they cannot be successfully administered to the brain. Getting around this issue is one of the biggest challenges for experts in the field of dementia drug development.
LIPUS could be one way of overcoming this issue and the first clinical trials of the treatment have started. Only time will tell if it fulfils its potential and can be rolled out to dementia patients, thus starting to reverse the worrying trend of sufferer numbers climbing over the last few years.