I learned last night that there had been another medical breakthrough – ultrasound treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
With an ageing population and increased cases of dementia this is indeed wonderful news for all of us as we grow older. Or is it?
You see the research was based on mice – not humans – little rodents which are not quite the same species.
The research was carried out by the University of Queensland and funded by Australian taxpayers via the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. What our tax dollars actually paid for was 20 mice genetically-engineered (a problem in itself as humans generally aren’t) to develop plaques in their brains and then given ultrasound sessions. Their memories were then tested by means of navigating a maze and an avoidance test which involved being given electric shocks. Following the tests their brains were inspected for plagues.The results showed that the ultrasound sessions reduced plaque and apparently improved the memory of the mice without causing any tissue damage, and the researchers say this has the potential to treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. However the researchers themselves even acknowledged many hurdles due to species differences.
- The human brain is much larger, and the skull thicker, so the ultrasound would need to be stronger to penetrate all areas of the brain. This could have negative consequences, such as causing damage to healthy brain tissue.
- There are concerns that the level of immune response that might be activated in the human brain could be too high.
- The mice in the study already had plaques when the ultrasound was started. The researchers do not know at what point of Alzheimer’s disease it would be appropriate to start treating humans. They are concerned that if they gave ultrasound to people with very early Alzheimer’s disease when there are few amyloid plaques, it may damage brain tissue.
- The study did not look at the long-term effects of the treatment.
Everyone I know including myself wants a cure to Alzheimer’s disease and its terrible effects on not just the victim but the entire family. One has to wonder however whether such breakthroughs will ever amount to actual cures or if they are justifications to conduct yet more animal experiments.
In the meantime we will no doubt continue to hear about medical breakthroughs and pivotal discoveries – unfortunately almost always based on a different species - that continue to give us false hopes that a cure is just around the corner.
The sad reality is that nine out of ten drugs tested successfully on animals don’t work when extrapolated to humans. This is the US FDA’s own research. It's logical to assume that the ten percent or less that do, are more likely to work in spite of being tested on animals rather than using animals in the first place. While this is not a drug as such, the reasoning holds true about using a different species and we really must get smarter and use more scientific methods that directly relate to human biology.