A new brain imaging technique being examined by a researcher in Thunder Bay, Ont. could help in the search for a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Mitch Albert, a researcher at Lakehead University, and the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute, is receiving over $700,000 from the Weston Brain Institute to fund his three year study of the use of hyperpolarized xenon gas to get a clearer picture of the brain when using an MRI machine. 

When patients inhale the gas, and it makes its way to the brain through the bloodstream, the quality of the images is ten times better than those taken using a regular MRI scan, said Albert. 

"It's a new window on the brain," he said. 

In order to get the hyperpolarized xenon gas to the brain, patients must inhale the gas as they lie in the MRI machine. 

brain imaging

Conventional proton functional MRI images of brain activity show up like this. Xenon images will be up to ten times better in quality, says Mitch Albert, providing a powerful tool for medical research. (http://www.neuroscienceblueprint.nih.gov)

The xenon gas (which acts like a general anesthetic at higher concentrations), is harmless, he said, and is exhaled by the patients in a matter of minutes. 

'Fantastic' tool for Alzheimer's research

Armed with high quality images, Albert hopes to gain a better understanding of how Alzheimer's affects the brain. 

The ultimate goal is to use the imaging technique to measure the effectiveness of drug treatments to stimulate brain function. 

"No one has looked at these images before. We don't know what we're going to see. So, it's very, very exciting," he said.

"There's no cure for Alzheimer's disease, and there's not even really good therapies for Alzheimer's out there. So what we need is better tools for testing of different treatments of Alzheimer's, and ultimately, this would be a fantastic imaging tool to be able to do that." 

Albert said he plans to spend the first year of the study fine tuning the imaging technique, before beginning trials with Alzheimer's patients. 

If successful, he said the imaging tool could have wide-ranging applications for studying other neurodegenerative diseases, as well as traumatic brain injury and concussions.