Researchers at IU School of Medicine are utilizing a promising new approach to tackle Alzheimer’s disease (AD) that doesn’t involve medication. Instead, Debomoy Lahiri, PhD, Felipe Perez, MD, and their research team are focused on Repeated Electromagnetic Field Stimulation (REMFS) and recently published an article in Nature Scientific Reports to share their progress.
More than 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. While some treatments are available to improve the quality of life for people with AD symptoms, the treatments do not stop the disease from progressing. There is no known cure for AD.
Researchers believe the presence of misfolded proteins or protein fragments in the brain contribute to AD. Those are known as amyloid plaques primarily of amyloid-β (Aβ) peptide—which are deposited between the brain’s nerve cells—and tau tangles—which are found inside the brain’s nerve cells.
Lahiri and Perez and the team found that using REMFS in primary human brain (PHB) cultures can decrease toxic amyloid-b peptide-levels. They looked at the effects of this noninvasive strategy on various levels, using different frequencies and powers. After exposing the PHB cultures to REMFS for one or two hours a day, they found significantly lower levels of Aβ peptide. This happened in multiple scenarios, including repeating the exposure for 4, 8 or 14 days. The study team also learned this did not damage the neuron membranes.
“The novelty lies in the fact that this is a non-pharmacological approach and it has no cellular toxicity or side effects under the conditions we used,” said Lahiri, who is a professor of medical neurobiology in psychiatry and in medical and molecular genetics at IU School of Medicine. Lahiri was also recently named a distinguished professor at Indiana University, the highest academic title for IU’s most outstanding and renowned scholars and researchers. He is also a primary member of Stark Neurosciences Research Institute, where he operates his laboratory.
Understanding a disorder as heterogenous as Alzheimer’s disease with multiple phenotypes and genotypes, and convergence to potentially find a final common clinicopathological endpoint remains a challenge. Because of that, its treatment strategies require diverse approaches, some of which are available at IU School of Medicine.
The Indiana CTSI connection
Perez, an associate professor of clinical medicine at IU School of Medicine, started studying electromagnetic fields in 2008, working on ways to delay the aging process at a cellular level. He found that REMFS delays aging by activating protein degradation pathways, so he thought that it also would work on Alzheimer’s disease. When he came to IU School of Medicine, the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI) helped him connect with Lahiri. They applied for and received a $40,000 Project Development Team (PDT) grant from the Indiana CTSI in September 2012 which helped support their initial collaborative experiments in this field. Based on these preliminary results, the researchers are planning to secure extramural funding through NIH grants in order to expand the utility of REMFS technique.
“REMFS represents the most promising non-pharmacological approach to tackle the devastating Alzheimer’s disease,” said Perez. “We have started working on computer simulations to find the electromagnetic field parameters for humans with engineers at IUPUI, but still need to develop a device to generate this electromagnetic field and see how it works in Alzheimer’s clinical trials.”
Lahiri and Perez believe their REMFS approach can be used in combination with other therapies, such as with drugs that have already been approved to treat symptoms for AD patients.
Other avenues explored by Lahiri’s lab
Lahiri was also the senior author of a Translational Psychiatry publication in 2020 that showed a new property of a drug that could reduce toxic Aβ peptide, which could eventually reduce a buildup of amyloid plaques.
“We are building on our expertise and want to have a synergistic effort with other kinds of approaches to potentially develop the best outcomes for people suffering with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Lahiri. “That is our hope.”
The Indiana CTSI PDT funding from 2012 was also cited in a Molecular Psychiatry publication in 2020 which focused on a potential microRNA target for AD therapy. Lahiri says microRNA-based work is another important effort which can also complement REMFS.
Other research by Lahiri’s study team also published in Molecular Psychiatry in 2020 focuses on a potential link between AD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, conditions on opposite ends of the lifespan that could have unique therapeutic implications.
“From small molecule (microRNA) and novel drug discovery to electromagnetic field approaches, our team has great breadth in terms of AD research,” said Lahiri. “I am very hopeful. Research on these biochemical, pharmacological, and non-pharmacological approaches can enable us to untangle the knots in AD and may also in other cognitive disorders.”