As people age, they are at increased for neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. One of the key characteristics that these diseases share is the lack of a cure. Current research, however, has made significant progress in solving the mysteries of these two diseases. Studying the two treatment methods and the research involved provides an interesting look into differences comparing the development of invasive and non-invasive procedures.
Alzheimer’s is characterized by the buildup of protein tangles and plaques that destroy the vasculature of the brain. Without a proper blood supply, brain cells begin to die off, thus causing the characteristic memory loss. Additional symptoms are extremely widespread but can include dementia, disorientation, and mood swings. The specific effects depend on which brain cells are dying. The proposed treatment, which has proven to be effective in mice, would use ultrasound to break apart the amyloid plaques. This approach is non-invasive and did not cause any damage to the surrounding brain tissues. The greater volume of brain tissue in humans may complicate the translation of this treatment into actual Alzheimer’s patients; its effectiveness may depend on how deep the plaques are forming in the brain. Regardless, it is an exciting and innovative approach to treating Alzheimer’s. Non-invasive procedures that display little to no side effects in animal models are excellent candidates for trials on people.
One of the proposed treatments for Parkinson’s that I find most compelling will be difficult to implement as a widespread and accessible treatment option. Parkinson’s is caused by the degeneration of the substantia nigra cells in the midbrain. These cells are responsible for generating dopamine, a key neurotransmitter in movement. A current option for temporarily relieving symptoms and giving the patient more time is to give the patient more dopamine to overcome the deficiency. Although this approach stalls the disease, it can have side effects due to excess dopamine, and it ultimately does not provide a cure. One possible approach to curing Parkinson’s is the use of stem cells to generate more dopamine-generating cells in the brain. Stem cell researchers are able to create stem cells from existing cells rather than relying on embryonic stem cells, but the public tends to continue to generate controversy and resistance despite this fact. Another obstacle is how invasive the proposed procedure would be. There would be many risks involved in the placement of the stem cell derived cells, complicating human trials. Still, a stem cell approach appears to be a logical solution to Parkinson’s since it focuses on one cell type and does not necessarily require precise neurological connections to be effective. The cells simply generate dopamine, and if we can replace them, we could potentially create a more permanent treatment for Parkinson’s.
Although the treatments for both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s have potential, the Alzheimer’s treatment will likely be seen first due to its non-invasive nature and apparent low risk approach. Hopefully we will be able to see both treatments, if not more reliable treatments, in the near future. They would vastly improve quality of life in an expanding population of elderly patients.
The paper on the Alzheimer’s treatment can be found here: http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/7/278/278ra33