The field of neurological research features so many developments it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Here’s a roundup of some of the latest developments in three key areas of neurology: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy. Note that this blog is intended as information only, not medical advice.
That’s the correlation at the heart of a new study published in the Jan. 13 Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
SciTechDaily reports that researchers found “significant” amounts of aluminum content in brain tissue from donors with familial Alzheimer’s.
In addition, the study uncovered an “unequivocal association” between the location of aluminum and amyloid-beta protein, which leads to early onset of Alzheimer’s, said lead investigator Christopher Exley, PhD, Birchall Centre, Lennard-Jones Laboratories, Keele University, Staffordshire, UK.
Exley went on to make a bold statement: “Within the normal lifespan of humans, there would not be any Alzheimer’s disease if there were no aluminum in the brain tissue. No aluminum, no Alzheimer’s disease.”
Science has suggested the link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s for more than 40 years.
Simply put, it couldn’t hurt to reduce one’s exposure to aluminum, an element that features no known essential role in living systems, according to a June 2018 article from the National Institutes of Health.
The metal “is a recognized neurotoxin, which could cause neurodegeneration,” wrote the researchers, Elif Inan-Eroglu and Aylin Ayaz.
Dr. Marnie Whitley, naturopathic physician at Neurology Associates, agrees.
“Aluminum toxicity has been thought for some time to have an association with immune suppression, cognitive decline and dementia including Alzheimer’s,” she says. “As with most heavy metals, the level of exposure and the body’s ability (or rather lack of ability) to clear the metal are factors in health risks.”
There are some foods that may help clear aluminum but “the easiest factor to address is exposure,” Whitley says.
Because aluminum is one of the most abundant metals in the earth’s crust, avoiding it altogether is impossible, she adds. That means aluminum is naturally present in healthy foods such as spinach and that’s okay.
“Where we can best avoid exposure is in food additives, so look for additives containing sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate,” Whitley says. “Also look at cosmetics, deodorants, cookware, and pharmaceuticals for sources of exposure and avoid them if possible. For many of these products there are aluminum-free options. Don’t avoid your spinach because it has some aluminum – it has some protective nutrients as well.”
Aluminum is also prevalent in occupations including aluminum refining, publishing and printing, and the automotive sector.
Improving gut health could be key to slowing, or perhaps even reversing, Parkinson’s.
That’s according to a new study from researchers at the University of Edinburgh and University of Dundee, co-funded by Parkinson’s UK. Investigators identified good bacteria – Bacillus subtilis – that appears to prevent the buildup of a protein linked to Parkinson’s.
The scientists discovered that Bacillus subtilis in roundworms not only protected against the protein collecting but also cleared some already formed clumps.
Keep in mind these are just initial findings. They are promising but researchers need to do more work.
“The next steps are to confirm these results in mice, followed by fast-tracked clinical trials since the probiotic we tested is already commercially available,” said lead researcher, Dr. Maria Doitsidou, from the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.
Before rushing out for a probiotic, check in with your (or your loved one’s) neurologist.
Many patients with epilepsy struggle with memory as well.
Researchers at Cedars-Sinai have pinpointed why this happens, and say that understanding the process could help doctors improve treatment.
The new study found that abnormal electrical pulses from specific brain cells in patients who report memory problems are associated with a temporary disruption called transient cognitive impairment.
"The unpredictability of seizures and memory impairment is a major stressor in people who have epilepsy," said Chrystal Reed, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Reed, and first author of the study.
As researchers uncover evidence that measuring eye tremors may help diagnose Parkinson’s disease earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given the RightEye Vision System the “Breakthrough Device” designation.
That means RightEye’s medical device will undergo a faster review process because it speaks to a major unmet need; expedited approvals could allow clinicians to add RightEye to their Parkinson’s assessment toolbox. In fact, doctors already can use the device for detecting vision disorders, they just can’t yet officially use it to diagnose Parkinson’s disease.
RightEye’s developers hope to reduce the amount of time and the number of evaluations required to diagnose Parkinson’s. RightEye identifies eye tremors, which often are detectable long before other Parkinson’s symptoms arise. The longer Parkinson’s goes untreated, the more debilitating and costly it becomes.
“In my experience, Parkinson’s patients often struggle for years, going from doctor to doctor trying to get a correct diagnosis,” George Gitchel, Ph.D., director of clinical research at the Southeast Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Center, at the Richmond Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said in a Dec. 3 press release. “By providing quantitative, objective data to assist clinicians, I truly believe that RightEye will play a key role addressing this issue.”
In 2012, the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology published an article that discussed the link between eye tremors and Parkinson’s disease.
“All patients with [Parkinson’s disease] exhibited persistent ocular tremor that prevented stability during fixation,” the authors wrote. “The pervasiveness and specificity of this feature suggest that modern, precise oculomotor testing could provide a valuable early physiological biomarker for diagnosing [Parkinson’s disease].”
For now, doctors continue to rely on a variety of neurological exams to pin down a Parkinson’s diagnosis. There is no single method of confirming the disease. Adding a medical device such as RightEye to the list of tests, however, could help narrow down the time needed to determine the presence of Parkinson’s.
Not only would earlier detection bring about treatment much sooner, it could help reduce the amount of money families and the U.S. government spend on Parkinson’s disease. A recent study commissioned by the Michael J. Fox Foundation and several of its partners found that Parkinson’s costs $52 billion per year – more than double previous estimates.
“Earlier assessment, intervention and more accurate diagnoses are anticipated to reduce these costs, while also improving patient outcomes and quality of life,” said Adam Gross, co-founder and CEO at RightEye.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one may have Parkinson’s disease, make an appointment to meet with Dr. Marianne De Lima, board-certified neurologist and movement disorders specialist at the Neurology Associates Chandler clinic.
Researchers at West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute are looking for more Alzheimer’s patients to take part in clinical trials involving ultrasound and virtual reality.
Requirements for the ultrasound studies are more stringent and exclusive than those for the virtual reality, or magnetic stimulation, tests.
“We’re looking for early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, so there is very specific criteria,” Ali Rezai, M.D., neurosurgeon and director of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, told WVNews. “We’ve had many, many people who have contacted us for the ultrasound study, but only a few passed the initial screening criteria.”
The virtual reality study, on the other hand, features broader specifications, Rezai said, “so that one will be much easier to get into.”
About a year ago, the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute reported successful phase II ultrasound trial results. That’s when investigators opened the blood-brain barrier using technology from Israeli company INSIGHTEC. The procedure requires no incisions or pharmaceuticals because it relies on sound waves. It works when doctors inject microscopic bubbles into the patient’s bloodstream and expose those bubbles to focused ultrasound. The bubbles then temporarily open the blood-brain barrier in the brain area being targeted.
Researchers are hopeful the new treatment is leading the way toward treating Alzheimer’s, which so far has no known cure. They continue to evaluate whether focused ultrasound reduces the debilitating plaques and cognitive decline that signify Alzheimer’s. It will take several years before experts fully understand whether focused ultrasound will have a permanent place in Alzheimer’s therapy.
People interested in learning more about participating in the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute’s Alzheimer’s studies will want to call 304-293-5150 or email WVURNI@hsc.wvu.edu. Only the personnel directly involved with the research will be privy to patient information.