In 2010, a 67-year-old former executive assistant for a Fortune 500 company was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. By 2014, her doctors confirmed she had Alzheimer's disease.
As her disease progressed, she continued to live independently but wasn't able to drive anymore. Today, she can manage most of her everyday tasks, but her two daughters are considering a live-in caregiver. Despite her condition, the woman may represent a beacon of hope for the approximately 44 million people worldwide living with Alzheimer's disease. The now 74-year-old is among a small cadre of Alzheimer's patients who have undergone an experimental ultrasound procedure aimed at slowing cognitive decline.
In November 2020, Elisa Konofagou, a professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Ultrasound and Elasticity Imaging Laboratory at Columbia University, and her team used ultrasound to noninvasively open the woman's blood-brain barrier. This barrier is a highly selective membrane of cells that prevents toxins and pathogens from entering the brain while allowing vital nutrients to pass through. This regulatory function means the blood-brain barrier filters out most drugs, making treating Alzheimer's and other brain diseases a challenge.
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce live images from the inside of the human body. But scientists think it could also be used to boost the effectiveness of Alzheimer's drugs, or potentially even improve brain function in dementia patients without the use of drugs.
The procedure, which involves a portable ultrasound system, is the culmination of 17 years of lab work. As part of a small clinical trial, scientists positioned a sensor transmitting ultrasound waves on top of the woman's head while she sat in a chair. The sensor sends ultrasound pulses throughout the target region. Meanwhile, investigators intravenously infused microbubbles into the woman to boost the effects of the ultrasound. Three days after the procedure, scientists scanned her brain so that they could measure the effects of the treatments. Five months later, they took more images of her brain to see if the effects of the treatment lasted.
After the first brain scan, Konofagou and her team found that amyloid-beta, the protein that clumps together in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and disrupts cell function, had declined by 14%. At the woman's second scan, amyloid levels were still lower than before the experimental treatment, but only by 10% this time. Konofagou thinks repeat ultrasound treatments given early on in the development of Alzheimer's may have the best chance at keeping amyloid plaques at bay.
This reduction in amyloid appeared to halt the woman's cognitive decline, at least temporarily. Following the ultrasound treatment, the woman took a 30-point test used to measure cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's. Her score — 22, indicating mild cognitive impairment — remained the same as before the intervention. Konofagou says this was actually a good sign.
"Typically, every six months an Alzheimer's patient scores two to three points lower, so this is highly encouraging," she says.
Konofagou speculates that the results might have been even more impressive had they applied the ultrasound on a larger section of the brain at a higher frequency. The selected site was just 4 cubic centimeters. Current safety protocols set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stipulate that investigators conducting such trials only treat one brain region with the lowest pressure possible.
The Columbia trial is aided by microbubble technology. During the procedure, investigators infused tiny, gas-filled spheres into the woman's veins to enhance the ultrasound reflection of the sound waves.
The big promise of ultrasound is that it could eventually make drugs for Alzheimer's obsolete.
"Ultrasound with microbubbles wakes up immune cells that go on to discard amyloid-beta," Konofagou says. "In this way, we can recover the function of brain neurons, which are destroyed by Alzheimer's in a sort of domino effect." What's more, a drug delivered alongside ultrasound can penetrate the brain at a dose up to 10 times higher.
Costas Arvanitis, an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who studies ultrasonic biophysics and isn't involved in the Columbia trial, is excited about the research. "First, by applying ultrasound you can make larger drugs — picture an antibody — available to the brain," he says. Then, you can use ultrasound to improve the therapeutic index, or the ratio of the effectiveness of a drug versus the ratio of adverse effects. "Some drugs might be effective but because we have to provide them in high doses to see significant responses they tend to come with side effects. By improving locally the concentration of a drug, you open up the possibility to reduce the dose."
The Columbia trial will enroll just six patients and is designed to test the feasibility and safety of the approach, not its efficacy. Still, Arvantis is hopeful about the potential benefits of the technique. "The technology has already been demonstrated to be safe, its components are now tuned to the needs of this specific application, and it's safe to say it's only a matter of time before we are able to develop personalized treatments," he says.
Konofagou and her colleagues recently presented their findings at the 20th Annual International Symposium for Therapeutic Ultrasound and intend to publish them in a scientific journal later this year. They plan to recruit more participants for larger trials, which will determine how effective the therapy is at improving memory and brain function in Alzheimer's patients. They're also in talks with pharmaceutical companies about ways to use their therapeutic approach to improve current drugs or even "create new drugs," says Konofagou.
A New Treatment Approach
On June 7, the FDA approved the first Alzheimer's disease drug in nearly two decades. Aducanumab, a drug developed by Biogen, is an antibody designed to target and reduce amyloid plaques. The drug has already sparked immense enthusiasm — and controversy. Proponents say the drug is a much-needed start in the fight against the disease, but others argue that the drug doesn't substantially improve cognition. They say the approval could open the door to the FDA greenlighting more Alzheimer's drugs that don't have a clear benefit, giving false hope to both patients and their families.
Konofagou's ultrasound approach could potentially boost the effects of drugs like aducanumab. "Our technique can be seamlessly combined with aducanumab in early Alzheimer's, where it has shown the most promise, to further enhance both its amyloid load reduction and further reduce cognitive deficits while using exactly the same drug regimen otherwise," she says. For the Columbia team, the goal is to use ultrasound to maximize the effects of aducanumab, as they've done with other drugs in animal studies.
But Konofagou's approach could transcend drug controversies, and even drugs altogether. The big promise of ultrasound is that it could eventually make drugs for Alzheimer's obsolete.
"There are already indications that the immune system is alerted each time ultrasound is exerted on the brain or when the brain barrier is being penetrated and gets activated, which on its own may have sufficient therapeutic effects," says Konofagou. Her team is now working with psychiatrists in hopes of using brain stimulation to treat patients with depression.
The potential to modulate the brain without drugs is huge and untapped, says Kim Butts Pauly, a professor of radiology, electrical engineering and bioengineering at Stanford University, who's not involved in the Columbia study. But she admits that scientists don't know how to fully control ultrasound in the brain yet. "We're only at the starting point of getting the tools to understand and harness how ultrasound microbubbles stimulate an immune response in the brain."
Meanwhile, the 74-year-old woman who received the ultrasound treatment last year, goes on about her life, having "both good days and bad days," her youngest daughter says. COVID-19's isolation took a toll on her, but both she and her daughters remain grateful for the opportunity to participate in the ultrasound trial.
"My mother wants to help, if not for herself, then for those who will follow her," the daughter says. She hopes her mother will be able to join the next phase of the trial, which will involve a drug in conjunction with the ultrasound treatment. "This may be the combination where the magic will happen," her daughter says.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."