How Lasers Could Be the Answer to Alzheimer’s

They’re now able to detect the clumps of toxic proteins that destroy the brain. One day they may be able to get rid of them

The brain scan on right shows Alzheimer’s damage.
The brain scan on right shows Alzheimer’s damage. Image courtesy of the National Institute on Aging

You never hear much talk of a war on Alzheimer’s disease because, frankly, we haven’t been putting up much of a fight.

It’s been more than 100 years since German physician Alois Alzheimer first described what he called “a peculiar disease,” and while scientists are pretty certain about what causes it—a buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain—they still don’t have an answer for how to prevent or cure the unrelentingly grim condition.

Last year, the pharmaceutical company Baxter International said it was discontinuing the testing of a drug called Gammagard after it proved ineffective in slowing the mental decline of Alzheimer’s patients. That followed the failure in clinical trials of an Alzheimer’s treatment developed by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, and another by Eli Lilly and Company.

This is the kind of news Baby Boomers on the cusp of old age hate to hear. Already, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to jump another 40 percent by 2025 and triple by 2050.

Light therapy?

But there may be a glimmer of light. A team of Swiss and Polish researchers say they might have come up with a way to attack the clumps of amyloid proteins that disengage the brain. Their technique involves using multi-photon lasers that are able to distinguish the destructive proteins in the brain from the healthy ones.

The researchers found that while healthy proteins are optically invisible—meaning the laser light passes right through them—the amyloids absorb some of the light.

Eventually, they believe, doctors will be able to use lasers to not only detect the bad protein cells, but to actually remove them and cure the patient. “Nobody has talked about using only light to treat these diseases until now,” said Piotr Hanczyc at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. “We have found a totally new way of discovering these structures using just laser light.”

Currently, doctors use chemicals or surgery to remove amyloid proteins—but that can damage healthy tissue. The laser treatment, which Hanczyc feels could also help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, could greatly limit that risk.

It sounds promising, but Alzheimer’s is one tenacious foe.

When genes break bad

Still, there’s a bit more positive news on the Alzheimer’s front. Based on the largest ever genetic analysis of the disease, scientists from the U.S. and Europe have identified 11 more genes linked to Alzheimer’s, doubling the number now known to be connected to the disorder. As recently as 2009, only one Alzheimer’s gene had been identified. That study, published in the journal Nature Genetics late last month, was based on a DNA scan of more than 74,000 elderly people in 15 countries.

The more genes associated with a disease, the more potential targets for a drug to attack. As Gerard Schellenberg, a professor of pa­thol­ogy at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s researchers, recently told the Washington Post, “Not all are good drug targets, but the longer the list of genes that you know are implicated in a disease, the more likely you are to find one that might be a good candidate for a drug.”

This too sounds promising. But Schellenberg also pointed out that it could take another 10 to 15 years to develop an effective Alzheimer’s drug therapy from what they’ve learned.

With luck, it will be worth the wait.

Laser focus

Here are more recent developments in laser research:

  • Imagine a deer in these headlights: Engineers at BMW have developed headlights that are able to convert intense blue laser beams into tightly concentrated—but non-laser—cones of white light. The car company says those lights will make it easier for drivers to pick out objects in the dark and should reduce eye fatigue.
  • That’s right, drones with lasers: DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense, is funding research to find a way to arm drones with lasers. The immediate goal is to give drones a way to protect themselves against surface-to-air missiles, but some experts believe this is the first step toward using drones as an anti-missile system.
  • Get real: UK scientists have developed a technique using laser printing to help detect fake merchandise. Each printed laser can be designed to give out its own unique optical signature. Because lasers can be printed on all sorts of surfaces—such as plastic, paper, metal and glass—the technique could be used to authenticate many kinds of products.
  • Taking the long view: University of Michigan engineers have invented a laser that can identify the chemical composition of an object from as far as a mile away. This could help military aircraft locate different types of targets, but also could be adapted for more benign uses, such as allowing full-body screening systems at airports to better identify hidden objects.
  • Well, it’s about time: Meanwhile, scientists at Stanford were able to user lasers to surgically make holes thinner than a human hair in the heads of live fruit flies, allowing researchers to see how the flies’ brains work. The researchers also successfully tested this technique on worms, ants and mice.

Video bonus: Here’s a clip of a U.S. Navy ship using lasers to shoot a drone out of the sky.

Video bonus bonus: Before they fade from pop culture history, here’s one last look at the laser cats that had their fleeting moment of fame on “Saturday Night Live.”

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