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So often, we look at the biggest to be the best. But in the world of medicine and technology, smallest is often the best, latest, greatest and newest. (Remember when computers used to take up rooms or when cell phones used to be bigger than our heads?) Some of the latest innovations are microscopic; but they’re making a huge impact in the management and treatment of neurological conditions.
Understanding what happens to the body during the course of a disease is important. But simple understanding only goes so far in providing comfort to patients and family members. Being able to take action to mitigate the disease is worth so much more!
Damage to the blood-brain barrier is one of the effects Alzheimer’s disease has on the brain. The blood-brain barrier offers critical natural protection to the brain. A normally tight border, the barrier prevents harmful molecules in the bloodstream from passing through and entering the brain. As the barrier deteriorates during the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, harmful elements such as the blood clotting thrombin pass through and enter the brain. While great for stopping blood flow in cuts, thrombin is quite harmful within the brain. This causes damage to neurons and can even contribute to cell death.
Engineers at MIT have developed a tissue model that includes microfluid channels, which allow the researchers to grow beta-amyloid protein, such as those seen in the brain of a patient with Alzheimer’s. On the other side of the microfluidic chip, researchers grew endothelial cells, which are present in the blood brain barrier. After ten days of growing these cultures in separate channels but on the same chip, collagen was introduced into the central channel between them. This permitted molecules to pass from one channel to another, demonstrating bidirectional signaling.
Most importantly, instead of using animal trials, scientists were able to control and observe detailed data. Then they were able to test two drugs, one of which worked very well to solidify the degraded blood-brain barrier, essentially plugging the leaks!
The development of this microscopic tissue model could potentially lead to major breakthroughs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
Even if medications are available for neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, and can help mitigate symptoms, they often are accompanied by unwanted side effects and complications. But what if the treatment could be hyper-localized, delivered only to the part of the body that actually needed it?
So many courses of medicine are oral or injected, meaning they travel through (and affect) the entire body. L-DOPA, a dopamine precursor used to treat Parkinson’s disease, passes through peripheral tissues, such as the liver and kidneys, producing unwanted side effects. And because it passes through so many other parts of the body, only about one percent of an oral dose successfully reaches the brain. In the early stages of the disease, the side effects may be worth it because one percent is still enough to mitigate symptoms of the disease.
As the disease progresses, however, L-DOPA becomes woefully insufficient and Parkinson’s symptoms are much more difficult to reduce and control. Researchers are developing miniaturized cannula, thin tubes through which medicine can be precisely targeted and delivered to the intended area. Tiny pumps are implanted under the skin and connected to the cannula. This technique could give doctors such a level of control that they are able to deliver tiny doses (nanoliters) to areas of the brain as small as one cubic millimeter!
This approach allows personalized, individual dosing for each patient, according to the progression of their disease and needs. Precise delivery reduces not only the unwanted side effects but also potentially increases the longevity of the effectiveness of the medication.
As medicine and technology continue to converge in hopes of providing treatments and cures to the conditions that plague humans, tiny is a wonderful thing. These are just two of the ways technology on the horizon can make major impacts on the well-being of the brain and body. Stay tuned to the BIPRI Brain Power Blog for the latest breakthroughs and advances in technology and medicine.
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