Hyperbaric oxygen therapy reverses hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

TAU study reports improvements of memory capacity, attention, and information processing speed

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A team of investigators from Tel Aviv University (TAU) has succeeded in restoring brain trauma by hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). This is the first time that non-drug therapy has been proven effective in preventing the core biological processes responsible for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Using a specific HBOT protocol, cerebral blood flow improved or increased in elderly patients by 16-23%, alleviating vascular dysfunction and amyloid burden. The study, part of a comprehensive research program directed toward aging and accompanying ailments as a reversible disease, holds promise for a new strategic approach to the prevention of Alzheimer’s by addressing the core pathology and biology responsible for the development of the disease.

The study was conducted under the leadership of a team of TAU investigators including Professor Shai Efrati, Professor Uri Ashery, Dr. Ronit Shapira, Dr. Pablo Blinder, and Dr. Amir Hadanny. All of them are members of TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience and the faculties of Life Sciences and Medicine, as well as associates of the Shamir Medical Center. The findings of the breakthrough study were published in the journal Aging.

Hyperbaric medicine is a form of therapy that requires patients to be kept in special chambers in which the atmospheric pressure is much higher than that normally experienced at sea level. In addition, they breathe air composed of 100% oxygen. Hyperbaric medicine is considered safe and already serves to treat an extensive list of medical conditions. In recent years, scientific evidence has indicated that unique protocols of hyperbaric therapy are capable of inducing repair of damage brain tissue and renewed growth of blood vessels and nerve cells in the brain.

The first stage of the study was carried out on an animal model, in the course of which it was proven conclusively through examination of brain tissues that a certain therapeutic protocol brings about an improvement in vascular function and the creation of new blood vessels. It also prevents the deposit of new amyloid plaques on the brain cells and even leads to the removal of existing amyloid plaque deposits. Deposits of such non-soluble amyloid proteins  in the brain are connected with severe degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

At the next stage, the effects of the treatment were examined for people above the age of 65 with cognitive decline, with an emphasis on memory loss, a stage preceding Alzheimer and Dementia. The therapy included a series of 60 HBOT sessions in pressure chambers over a period of 90 days. The effects on the brain were evaluated by high resolution perfusion MRI. The hyperbaric treatment protocol gave rise to increased blood flow in the range of 16%-23%, significant improved in memory by 16.5% on average, and significant improvements in attention and information processing speed.

“By studying and treating Alzheimer’s disease in the animal model, we can implement our findings to include humans as well,” Professor Ashery explains. “After a series of hyperbaric treatments, elderly patients who were already suffering from memory loss showed an improvement of blood flow to the brain, as well as a real improvement in cognitive performance. Consequently, we succeeded in demonstrating the latent potential of hyperbaric medicine for treatment of neurologic conditions that originate from a deficiency of oxygen reaching the cells.”

“This breakthrough was enabled thanks to a new research approach that employs multi-photon microscopes,” Dr. Blinder says. “This allowed us to follow up improvements in indices taken from animal models before and after each chamber treatment. At the same time, we check blood vessel diameters and the formation of amyloid plaques in their brains.”

“The combination of an animal model from which we could learn the pathology of the disease, together with existing and available therapy, raises the hope that we will now be able to fight one of the greatest challenges to the western world,” Dr. Shapira adds. “According to our findings, hyperbaric therapy given at a young age is likely to prevent this severe disease entirely.”

Professor Efrati sums up the team’s findings: “By treating the root problem that causes cognitive deterioration with age, we are in fact mapping out the way to prevention. It is likely that hyperbaric medicine can potentially provide the opportunity for living with good brain function without relating to chronological age. The idea is to commence therapy before the onset of clinical symptoms of dementia and before deterioration and loss of extensive brain tissue. This is the stage at which blood vessels become occluded and the blood flow and the oxygen supply to the brain are diminished — a phenomenon that can already take place at a relatively early age.”

"By treating the root problem that causes cognitive deterioration with age, we are in fact mapping out the way to prevention."