Doctors have opened the blood-brain barrier for the first time

Surgeons have opened and closed the blood-brain barrier (BBB) for the first time, New Scientist reports. The BBB is a protective cell lining that shields the brain from potentially harmful chemicals in the blood. But it also means that it’s not possible to take drugs for brain disorders as they won’t circulate to where they’re needed. In the past, researchers had successfully opened the barrier in animals, but until now, no one had done it for humans.

Now Michael Canney and his colleagues at Parisian medical devices start-up CarThera and Alexandre Carpentier from Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital are testing a new method on patients with recurring aggressive brain tumours. The patients already had small holes in their skull from their tumour removals, through which the doctors inserted an ultrasound implant.

They then injected microbubbles into the blood, turned on the ultrasound for a couple of minutes, and this action made a small area of the cells making up the BBB vibrate and open slightly. The doctors then administered chemo as normal, in the hope that there was a better chance of it being absorbed by the brain. (They predict that the barrier is open for around six hours at a time after this procedure.)

MRI testing proved that a chemical injected alongside the microbubbles had breached the BBB, so they’re hopeful that the chemo has too. For now, they’re treating four patients in this way once a month and should be able to gauge the effectiveness of the treatment early next year.

Regardless of its success, their ability to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier in humans could lead to a new treatment option for people with Alzheimer’s. In animal tests, just opening the BBB reduced the amount of protein plaque build-up that’s a hallmark of the disease, perhaps because it allowed in immune cells which could fight it off. If that’s the case, the technique could potentially help all kinds of conditions in future.

Image by Mikhail Kalinin via Wikimedia Commons.

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