How ultrasound might get drugs across the blood-brain barrier

A new technology uses ultrasound and tiny bubbles to open the blood-brain barrier.

Cavitation microstreaming generated by a microbubble and marked by fluorescent beads.
Cavitation microstreaming generated by a microbubble and marked by fluorescent beads.
Miles M. Aron, courtesy of BUBBL, University of Oxford, England

New technology may open the door to safer and less invasive use of drugs used to treat brain cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

The brain is surrounded by a protective barrier called the blood-brain barrier that prevents chemicals in the blood from entering the brain. While this keeps out toxins, it can also prevent access of certain drugs to the brain which can help in the treatment brain cancer and other diseases of the brain.

Researchers from the University of Oxford, UK, and the University of Twente, Netherlands, have developed a promising technique for opening the barrier using ultrasound and microscopic bubbles known as ‘cavitation agents’.

The research was conducted collaboratively between the University of Oxford, United Kingdom and the University if Twente, Netherlands. An experimental platform – a kind of “blood-brain barrier on a chip” made from human cells – was used to measure acoustic emissions, light, sound and electrical fields of the blood-brain barrier during treatment. Fluorescent probes were also used to determine the mechanical and chemical effects on the cells from the cavitation agents. This allowed disruption, recovery and biological response of the barrier to be observed in real time.

While tests on real brains are some way off, this method may open up a range of new possibilites for treating diseases of the brain.

The results were presented to the 173rd Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

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