Imagine strapping on a high-tech helmet, lying on an MRI table and, after microbubbles bounce in your blood vessels and ultrasound waves are beamed at your brain, walking away with fewer symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
That may sound like it’s straight out of a science fiction movie, but it’s not. What’s called focused ultrasound technology is just one of the many avenues scientists are exploring in an ongoing quest to find a treatment for the most common type of dementia.
“We need to really explore and be bold in terms of the way we’re looking at Alzheimer’s, because the disease is not going away, it’s increasing,” says neurosurgeon Ali Rezai, M.D., executive chair of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at West Virginia University and a leading researcher on the topic.
In fact, the number of people living with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, globally is expected to nearly triple by 2050, a new study published in The Lancet predicts. Cases in the U.S. could increase from nearly 5.3 million (a 2019 statistic) to about 10.5 million during that same time.
All the while, effective treatments for the disease have come up short. Numerous clinical trials testing drugs designed to stop or slow the progression of the disease — not just ease its symptoms — have failed or have yet to prove beneficial to patients, prompting researchers to cast a wider net and explore a more diverse array of targets and technologies that could help solve the dementia dilemma.
“In the field, we’re certainly keeping all options open,” says Ronald Petersen, M.D., an Alzheimer’s expert and director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, who is not involved in focused ultrasound research. “Because treatments are not going to result in a silver bullet for Alzheimer’s disease.”