• Creating a better understanding of the structure of the brain and how that structure changes with ageing is important for understanding ageing and disease. (Public Domain)
What if we could improve the function of our brains, reverse mental deterioration and slow down Alzheimer's disease by simply getting an ultrasound scan every now and again? Researchers in Queensland are testing imaging technology to see if it can save our ageing brains.
By
Yasmin Noone

12 Oct 2016 - 4:01 PM  UPDATED 13 Dec 2016 - 12:41 PM

Imagine a future where, instead of doing a Sudoku puzzle or chanting meditative ‘omms’ to improve the function of your brain, you visited your nearest radiology clinic to get an ultrasound scan of cranium.

It may sound like a step too far in our pursuit for longer and healthier lives but this method of brain degeneration prevention is currently being tested by researchers in Queensland.

So far, treatment with scanning ultrasound has already been proven to reverse Alzheimer’s disease in mice and today, results from the technology trial for the purpose of slow brain ageing have been released.

The research, from University of Queensland’s Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research at the Queensland Brain Institute, shows that scanning ultrasound prevents the degeneration of cells in the brains of healthy mice.

“We are currently conducting experiments to see if this preservation of the brain cell structure will ameliorate reductions in learning and memory that occur with ageing,” says researcher, Dr Robert Hatch.

“We found that, far from causing any damage to the healthy brain, ultrasound treatments may in fact have potential beneficial effects for healthy ageing brains."

He explains that the work was originally designed as a safety study, but soon revealed a broader role for the non-invasive treatment in maintaining brain health.

“We found that, far from causing any damage to the healthy brain, ultrasound treatments may in fact have potential beneficial effects for healthy ageing brains,” Dr Hatch says.

“In a normal brain the structure of neuronal cells in the hippocampus, a brain area extremely important for learning and memory, is reduced with age.

“But what we found is that treating mice with scanning ultrasound prevents this reduction in structure, which suggests that by using this approach we can keep the structure of the brain younger as we get older.”

The research, published in PloS One, found that scanning ultrasound treatments can prevent changes in brain cell structure for at least three months, although the scientists are currently conducting experiments to see if they can push this effect out to at least six months or longer.

“So in effect the brain cells of older mice that received the ultrasound treatment looked the same as brain cells from younger mice.”

“However, what we don’t know yet and are currently working to understand is how preventing this change in structure affects the way the brain functions.”

“So in effect the brain cells of older mice that received the ultrasound treatment looked the same as brain cells from younger mice.”

But why is the securing the structure of our brain an essential factor in working out how to slow down its age-related degeneration anyway?

“The structure of our brains, in part, defines the way our brains function…We [also] know that changes in brain cell structure are strongly associated with reductions in cognition, for example the ability to learn and remember information.

“Creating a better understanding of the structure of the brain and how that structure changes with ageing is not only important for understanding normal ageing but is essential for understanding diseases.

“This is particularly important for diseases like Alzheimer’s where ageing is the greatest risk factor.

“If we understand what a healthy brain looks like then we have a greater ability to figure out what has gone wrong when someone gets a disease like Alzheimer’s.”

"...As this is a mouse study more research is needed to determine the efficacy in humans”.

According to Alzheimer's Australia, there are currently 353,800 Australians living with dementia. This figure is expected to skyrocket to 400,000 in less than five years and to almost 900,000 by 2050, in the absence of a medical breakthrough. The research team will soon test the effect of ultrasound on the brain structure and function of older mice.

Although Dr Hatch says he is very excited about future of ultrasound technology in the field of ageing, the treatment has not yet been tested on the human brain.

Alzheimer’s Australia CEO Maree McCabe welcomes the research as its findings potentially lead to a better understanding of dementia and treatments for people who are living with dementia.

However, she says, "as this is a mouse study more research is needed to determine the efficacy in humans”.

She therefore recommends that people continue to use traditional methods of keeping their brain fighting fit until a discovery on humans is made," explains Ms McCabe.

“There are things we can all do to improve our brain-health including looking after our heart, because we know what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

"Eating a well-balanced diet, limiting saturated fats and exercising are all good for brain-health. Challenging your brain, learning new things and staying socially connected can also improve brain-health as we age.

"Not smoking and managing diabetes well, could also contribute to maintaining brain-health and reducing the risk of dementia.”

If you have concerns about dementia please speak with a trusted health professional.

If you are in need of support or more information about dementia, phone the National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500 or visit Alzheimer's Australia online.

 

Watch the SBS On Demand video below to find out more about a new test to detect Alzheimer's disease.

 

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