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Nanomedicine and Neurological Disorders: Crossing over the Blood-Brain Obstacle

The advent of technology has opened doors for ultimately game-changing discoveries within the vastness of the medical field, most prominently, in nanomedicine. First proposed in the early 90s, nanomedicine is a relatively new field that is based on using nanotechnology that interplays with body systems at a molecular scale and that could expectantly upgrade treatments for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Invisible to the naked eye, these minuscule particles cooperate with the body’s immune system and have the potential to liberate vaccines, form rapid and accurate diagnoses, and pack particles with treatments targeting neurodegenerative diseases, amongst various others whilst also limiting the side effects. 

As Professor Mark Kendall from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland and nanopatch developer said, “Nanomedicine is the embodiment of genuine personalised medicine with diagnosis and treatment on an individual basis as opposed to things being done through massive clinical trials.”

The struggle to find accurate treatments and cures for treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is primarily due to the high efficiency of the Blood Brain Barrier (BBB). This membrane accurately safeguards the brain from being exposed to potentially dangerous elements acting upon the body. In doing so, it also hampers the passage of beneficial drugs across the Central Nervous System (constituted by the brain and spinal cord) which could ultimately facilitate the diagnosis for neurodegenerative disorders and their treatment. The basis of neurodegeneration, which lays the foundation for all neurodegenerative disorders, is used to explain the process by which neurons degenerate therefore impacting the patient’s memory and/or other cognitive functions.

Source: Health Agenda, 2017

Alzheimer’s Disease

Dominating the cases of neurodegenerative diseases across the globe, Alzheimer’s disease currently affects a stark 55 million people, which is more than double the cases at the beginning of 2020, which was suspected to be around 25 million. The key idea explicating this phenomenon is essentially neurodegeneration, which may be instigated by various factors including the accumulation of proteins, which subsequently leads to neuron deprivation and then to unpleasant symptoms such as memory loss, cognitive impairments, and even alterations in the patient’s behaviour.

Parkinson’s Disease

Reaching second place on the list, Parkinson’s disease affects the Central Nervous System and therefore induces impairments in the patient’s motor abilities. Namely, it leads to the death of essential neurons that are at the wheel of dopamine production, a hormone that plays a major role in coordinating and directing various activities. Some fundamental characteristics of Parkinson’s disease include a lack of balance and coordination among various limbs, body tension, and hand tremors just to name a few. Albeit less prevalent than Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease still affects an astonishing number of 10 million people all over the world.

Now, jumping to the heart of the matter, how do these nanoparticles conquer the Blood Brain Barrier’s highly rigorous security system?

As mentioned prior, the BBB authorises the passage of only a selected category of molecules no matter how miniscule their size whilst forbidding it for the majority of other substances that do not meet certain criteria, including therapeutic drugs. These famed nanoparticles, thanks to the recent developments in chemistry and technology, pertain to the limited group of molecules that the BBB deems safe to reach the brain. These minute particles reach myriads of neurons because of their lipophilic nature, which means that they can dissolve in lipids. This paves the way for their passage through the BBB via countless various methods including via active transport, which refers to the energy-fueled movement of molecules and ions from an area of their low concentration to an area of their high concentration across a cell membrane.

The surface of these nanoparticles (NPs for short) can be tailored and adjusted according to the complementary shape of the particular drug. The successful binding of these two particles forms a complex in which the NP component can deliver the drug to the designated body part. The NP finalises its journey when binding to the targeted body area leading to the breakdown of the NP’s shell, leading to the ultimate liberation of the agents.

Although the study has a long way to go and its efficacy is still under research, the scientific field keeps its hopes high for its potential to treat countless different diseases in the future. As senior lecturer at the Monasch Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences Dr Angus Johnston said, “In 20 years’ time most drugs will be delivered by some nanotechnology-based delivery system, getting drugs to where they need to go without side effects.”

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