A Chatham woman with Alzheimer’s disease is being treated with ultrasound to open the blood-brain barrier.

Karen Hellerman, 62, was diagnosed with early stage dementia and is being treated with the “out of the box” approach.

Researchers from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and University of Toronto say it’s a key first step that could potentially lead to a whole new way of treating the disease.

Hellerman is losing her short-term memory and her ability to process complex tasks.

“Sometimes I can get it out, and sometimes I can’t and that disturbs me. “ Hellerman told CTV News. Her husband Neil knows there are no drug treatments to effectively slow or stop the disease.

“As her dementia gets worse, her physical state will get worse…it’s not a good thing. And she’s young, she’s gonna miss part of her life,” said Neil.

She is patient No. 3 in a group of six people with early Alzheimer’s disease, participating in the first study of its kind.

One of the biggest challenges in treating brain disease is getting drug therapies past the blood-brain barrier, which is like a protective “wrap” that surrounds even the tiniest blood vessels in the brain and acts as a “gate” to protect the brain from toxins and proteins that could enter through the bloodstream.

But it also hinders the entry of medications that could be effective in treating Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.

In November, 2015, Sunnybrook researchers temporarily opened the blood-brain barrier for the first time to see if they could deliver chemotherapy directly into a patient’s brain tumour.

Now, researchers are using the same technique for Alzheimer’s patients.

Kullervo Hynynen, director of physical sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute, has been working for two decades on the technology.

“It could be we are stimulating some effects in the brain that help it clear itself,” he told CTV News.  “We also think we are stimulating growth of new neurons.”

If this phase proves successful, the researchers may begin another trial to test introducing small amounts of drugs into the brain area most affected by dementia, the hippocampus, which is the region for creating new memories.

Hellerman knows this first safety study won’t help her, but the knowledge gained will advance research.

“Maybe not for me, but for others…maybe better, you know what I mean,” she said.

Her husband hopes she will be on top of the list for future studies of focused ultrasound.

 “My hope is that it works and that Karen’s level of dementia doesn’t get worse, and maybe gets better,” Neil said.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip.