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WVU Researchers Working On Treatment To Help Reverse Effects Of Alzheimer's Disease

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- In 2014, Judi was a nurse practitioner in the neonatal intensive care unit. She knew something wasn't right.

"Forgetfulness, dropped words, things that I knew very well," she said.

She thought she might be depressed, so she first saw a psychiatrist. It wasn't depression.

"They diagnosed me with Alzheimer's," Judi said.

She started on medicine, but knew the disease would progress.

"There's really nothing that fixes this," she said. "It will get worse over time."

So, when a study in Morgantown, West Virginia, opened up, she jumped at the chance.

"Since there are not many options out there, it's important to explore any new technologic innovation, and apply that very quickly," says Dr. Ali Rezai, of the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

Photo Credit: KDKA

In this study, participants lie flat in an MRI machine, while wearing a special helmet. The ultrasound probes inside the helmet send highly-focused energy to specific targets in the brain.

The MRI-guided ultrasound targets the hippocampus, a part of the brain important to memory.

Microscopic bubbles are injected into the blood stream, and as they course through vessels near the hippocampus, the ultrasound causes the bubbles to shake.

This temporarily opens up the blood brain barrier, a shield that keeps large and potentially harmful substances from getting into the brain, things like toxins or drugs. But it also keeps bad things in, like the plaques, the sticky clumps of protein, that are a hallmark of Alzheimer's.

The researchers believe this activates the brain's immune system, clears the plaques, and improves symptoms.

"It requires tremendous expertise, it requires sophisticated equipment," says Dr. Rezai.

The study is sponsored by the equipment manufacturer Insightec.

A potential risk would be unwanted substances entering the brain while the barrier is open. In animal studies and small human studies with a different part of the brain, the procedure has been safe.

To qualify, participants must be in the early stages of Alzheimer's with plaques on pet scan.

Participants cannot have any other significant medical illnesses, and they have to be able to lie flat for several hours.

"They also have a little halo that they have to have their head attached to, that allows the head to be immobilized, so we can target precisely and safely hippocampus," says Dr. Rezai.

"They were little bolt things that went in my head was the worst thing I worried about," Judi describes.

Judi has completed the three sessions of targeted ultrasound, and now will be followed for five years with repeat testing, blood work, spinal taps and imaging.

"I really had significant improvement in cognitive memory that was pretty impressive," Judi says.

"This is an investigational study, but it may not help her. So she's a very brave person," Dr. Rezai says.

Judi sees herself as a pioneer, and hopes this intervention moves forward.

"It was something that I wanted to do. I can't change my diagnosis, I can't change what the trajectory is going to be, but I can change what may be in the future for other people," she said.

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