At West Virginia University’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, a group of researchers led by neurosurgeon Ali R. Rezai, MD, are successfully using ultrasound waves to treat early stage Alzheimer’s.

The groundbreaking procedure uses microscopic bubbles and a specialized helmet with over 1,000 probes to emit ultrasound waves focused on an exact spot in the brain. In turn, the blood-brain barrier is disrupted, a region in between the brain’s blood vessels and cells that’s considered practically impenetrable. “It’s protected on one end for us to function but also prevents larger molecules or chemotherapy or medications or antibodies or immune system cells or amino therapy or stem cells to get in,” said Dr. Rezai.

The Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute collaborated with INSIGHTEC, an Israel-based company that creates incisionless brain surgery technology. This past July, INSIGHTEC received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to begin phase II of their clinical trials for their MR-guided Focused Ultrasound (MRgFUS), a device for treating Alzheimer’s. INSIGHTEC picked the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute as its first test site in the United States for that particular phase. Sunnybrook Health Services in Toronto participated in phase I and discovered that the technology was able “reversibly open the blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer’s patients,” according to West Virginia News.

Judi Polak, a former nurse at WVU Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, was the first patient to undergo the ultrasound. Dr. Rezai’s team targeted her hippocampus and the memory and cognitive centers that are affected by plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. “Plaques are these clusters of proteins that accumulate and they block-up the brain’s connectivity. In animal studies it showed that these plaques are cleared with ultrasound technology,” said Dr. Rezai. Being the guinea pig was worth it for Polak, and they safely and effectively opened her blood-brain barrier for a record 36 hours.