Almost every day, new studies that focus on the debilitating brain disorder known as Alzheimer's disease is being published both online and in physical journals.
And yet, although scientists are beginning to dig through the illness's underpinnings, relatively little is known about the disorder's causes.
Now, a revolutionary new imaging technology called iDISCO offers hope for the understanding of what causes Alzheimer's and the development of more effective treatment.
Developed by scientists from the Rockefeller University in New York City, iDISCO can help experts create 3D images of the protein that is suspected to cause the devastating brain disorder. The project is funded by the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation.
Examining The Potential Cause Of Alzheimer's Disease
Statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) show that more than 5 million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer's disease.
This neurological disorder is a form of dementia that robs patients of their ability to think, their memory and their brain function.
Past studies have shown that the buildup of a protein called beta amyloid may be linked to the progression of this brain disorder, although it is not yet clear why this plaque accumulates in the brain in the first place.
Collecting images of beta amyloid is not easy because it requires thin slices of brain matter that will be observed under the microscope.
Scientists say that this two-dimensional method of studying beta amyloid is quite limited, especially given the brain's complexity.
But in the new study, the Rockefeller/Fisher researchers have been working on finding a way to make the method in 3D.
In the past, scientists would have to scan tiny slides of brain matter and then layer them to construct a 3D view, but they say this process is very time-consuming.
"[Y]ou also include a lot of artifacts when you try to reconstruct a 3D tissue," says Dr. Marc Flajolet, a research assistant professor at Rockefeller.
Along with Flajolet, Dr. Paul Greengard of the Fisher Center wanted to move imaging technology forward in order to better understand the disease.
Greengard, a Nobel Laureate and the director of the Fisher Center, says when new technologies were emerging, they decided to give them a try.
How iDISCO Works
With the help and expertise of Greengard, Flajolet worked with Dr. Thomas Liebmann, a post-doctoral fellow in the Greengard lab to create iDISCO, which combines various technologies and microscopic methods to view an entire brain sample in 3D.
The new imaging technology works by washing the brain of the mouse or sections of the human brain with complex solvents. This will turn the fat or lipid of the brain transparent.
Researchers will then use state-of-the-art microscopes to scan what is visible, and if it is present, the beta amyloid plaque.
Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Rockefeller, says the microscope used in the study known as the Light Sheet Microscope.
It sends a sheet of light through the brain and scans each plane in successive turns. With that, it collects the data and makes a 3D brain out of it, says Tessier-Lavigne.
Why The New Imaging Technology Is Important
The Rockefeller/Fisher research team hopes that the new technology will uncover some of the secrets behind the formation of beta amyloid plaque and the origin of Alzheimer's.
Greengard says the imaging technology will allow experts to actually see the beta amyloid in an entire mouse brain or chunks of the human brain, study where the plaques are located and identify the cells that are connected to it.
Flajolet hopes the technology could result in the categorization of Alzheimer's so that treatment can be much more effective. He says not everybody will respond to the same treatment.
And like depression, Alzheimer's is a complex disease that will require the organization of types in different categories so the treatment could be better and adaptable, Flajolet adds.
Details of the team's study are published in the journal Cell Reports. Watch the video below to know more about iDISCO.