Physical therapists already use ultrasound to help some injuries heal faster. One day those treatments could be used to keep older brains sharp, even as the years go by. An accidental discovery in the lab by Australian researchers opened the door for this approach to become a reality.
It started when a team from the Queensland Brain Institute was doing a safety study for a noninvasive scanning ultrasound treatment they had developed to reverse Alzheimer's in mice. That alone made headlines when it came out last year. But they wanted to go a step farther and make sure that their technique wouldn't damage healthy brain cells, lead researcher Robert Hatch explained to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Over the course of six weeks, Hatch and his colleagues treated mice in the lab with either one or six scanning ultrasound sessions. They reviewed the mice's brain cell structure and function two hours, one day, one week and then three months after the animals received the ultrasound treatment, according to the lab.
What they found was unexpected. Normally aging reduces the structure of impulse-conducting cells in the hippocampus, the section of our brains heavily involved in memory and learning. Much to the researchers' surprise, the treatments appeared to slow down the brain aging process for the mice. Instead of getting smaller, the brain cell structures stayed the same. The team published their findings this week in the journal PLOS ONE.
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While this technique didn't reverse the brain's aging process, Hatch said in the lab's press release that the finding does suggest we can keep the brain young as we get older.
"What we're envisioning at some point down the track is - once it's gone through treatments and approvals and everything - we envision that this would be like a check up for your car," Hatch told ABC. "So you could then come in, receive a scanning ultrasound treatment and that would act to help preserve the structure of your brain."
Next, the researchers plan to test what happens when they use the ultrasound technique on older mice. I imagine hordes of people are eager to find out where their research leads. Who knows, maybe the fountain of youth is actually an ultrasound machine.
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