Dementia is a human tragedy

Many of us know a person, who has Alzheimer’s disease or other type of dementia. She may be your grandmother or aunt who slowly loses her memory – first all the good recent moments you had together and later you and her other family members all together. Wouldn’t it be nice to prevent this from happening and diagnose dementia at an early stage?

Clearing waste from one´s brain

Recent studies suggest that accumulation of beta-amyloid in the brain may be one main cause for Alzheimer’s disease. Beta-amyloids can be considered as unwanted waste from metabolism that healthy brain cells do not have. Recently a waste disposal system has been discovered. There is a network of previously unrecognized vessels that rid the brain of unwanted extracellular fluids and other substances, including amyloid-beta. The new discovery may help us to understand the disease and how it is developing. Researchers who found the system have named the new network as the glymphatic system, in recognition of the importance of glial cells and the resemblance to the lymphatic system.

It is, however, uncertain whether treatments effective in clearing amyloid-beta in humans do anything to slow the progression of dementia. Further studies and more clinical research are needed. Moreover, any non-invasive, portable method would be helpful in situations of medical experimentation, because experimentations in hospital are often unpleasant for the patient, especially if they have dementia. Patients may fear unfamiliar places, things, hospital environment and even doctors wearing white jackets.

Non-invasive measurement

It is difficult to develop measurement system for something that is not known. Magnetic Resonance Imaging, (MRI), is one non-invasive method that has been used for glymphatic system. Many of us have been inside of MRI for numerous reasons. You lay on a table, there are lights and humming noise around and you and the table are sliding through a narrow tunnel. It may be a scary feeling and not suitable for dementia patients. MRI scanning is also expensive and slow.

Research team at the University of Oulu is studying other non-invasive methods to measure human brain function. One possibility is to use electro-optics, where invisible beam of light is directed inside the skull and the reflected light is detected. The light will reflect back from different layers inside the head and a computer can build an image of the head. Microwaves will be studied for the same purpose. After all, light and microwaves are both electromagnetic radiation with different wavelengths. With these new non-invasive methods measurements of the glymphatic system can be carried out with no discomfort to the patient.

Hope for the future

Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are causing a lot of suffering in our society. It is becoming more common when people live longer. Glymphatic system may be part of healthy brains’ activity but it is difficult to measure it, and with current methods, impossible. Teams at the University of Oulu are developing non-invasive, lightweight and fast electronic methods to measure the pulsing of waste fluid inside one’s head. This may help us to understand development of dementia and find an early cure to stop its advancing.

 

Last updated: 17.11.2017

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