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Sunnybrook researchers safely breach the blood-brain barrier in large and critical brain structures in Alzheimer’s disease

January 25, 2023

Sunnybrook researchers continue their leading-edge work in focused ultrasound and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as recent findings demonstrate the safety of using image-guided focused ultrasound to temporarily breach the blood-brain barrier in multiple large regions of the brain affected by AD.

The study, “Blood-brain barrier opening of the default mode network in AD with MR-guided focused ultrasound” has been published in the journal Brain.

Researchers focused on the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), structures that are impacted in the early stages of Alzheimer’s which are key to attention, decision-making, and memory.

“Our study showed that opening the blood-brain barrier in multiple large regions of the brain known to be involved in Alzheimer's disease was safe and well-tolerated by study participants,” says Dr. Nir Lipsman, co-principal investigator of the study and director of Sunnybrook’s Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation.

The blood-brain barrier is made up of cells that prevent various compounds from entering the brain, including potentially helpful therapeutics. In the study, low-frequency ultrasound waves targeted specific brain regions to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier in patients with AD.

This work expands upon the team’s Phase I trial, significantly increasing the number and volume of targeted structures.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, amyloid and tau proteins are known to build up plaque and form tangles in the brain.

“We also found that temporary blood-brain barrier opening led to a significant reduction in amyloid deposition in a key memory-related structure,” says Dr. Lipsman. “These are quite preliminary findings, however, and additional research and larger trials are needed.”

Researchers say the clinical trial is a multi-disciplinary collaboration.

“Our study brought together researchers who are world experts in fluid and imaging biomarkers, Alzheimer’s disease, and focus ultrasound,” adds Dr. Ying Meng, the study’s first author and neurosurgery resident at Sunnybrook. “This interdisciplinary effort and research will help pave the way for the next phase of the trial.”

“Next steps will involve combining focused ultrasound blood-brain barrier opening with the delivery of a therapeutic, that pre-clinical studies done here at Sunnybrook have shown can be linked to increased amyloid clearance,” explains Dr. Lipsman. “We need to think 'outside of the box,' and continue to innovate and advance the development of novel treatments and strategies for Alzheimer's disease in the future.”

A key driver of this research is philanthropic investment. This study was funded by the Weston Brain Institute and Focused Ultrasound Foundation and supported by The Harquail Family through the Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation. Vital advancements like this are made possible through the generous support of Sunnybrook donors.

Learn more about research in focused ultrasound and Alzheimer’s disease

Read about focused ultrasound

Media contact:

Jennifer Palisoc
Communications Advisor
Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre