McKelvey School of Engineering Neurotechnologies School of Medicine

New Technique for Diagnosing Brain Diseases is Successfully Put to the Test

Hong Chen, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering and radiation oncology at Washington University in St. Louis, is dedicated to what may seem like the impossible.

“This constant puzzle of what’s happening in my brain.” Chen is referring to all human brains that share this complexity. And getting answers to serious problems can be very difficult.


“Like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or brain tumors,” she said.

Because the brain is incredibly protected, MRIs and CT scans are used.

“With those imaging techniques, you don’t know what’s the genetic or molecular makeup of that disease,” she said.

A tissue biopsy is an option with an invasive surgery.

“Removal of a small piece of skull and then insert a long needle and take out a piece of the brain tissue is only available for brain tumor patients,” said Chen. “When a patient has Alzheimer’s or other diseases, we don’t even have access to that small piece of tissue. And to get that information. What can we do?”

While looking for answers, Chen and her colleagues developed a new method of diagnosis.

“For noninvasive access to small molecules, like DNA – RNA – protein or those small molecules in the brain.”

The research involving her Washington University School of Medicine lab facilitated diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in an animal study. Chen is using a focused ultrasound technique that she said can overcome challenges of new, emerging methods for diagnosis such as blood testing for biomarkers of Alzheimer’s that’s currently in use and being developed. Those challenges are due to the blood-brain barrier that makes some valuable information difficult to access noninvasively.

“Our brain is protected by this blood-brain barrier that protect against any toxins in the blood from reaching the brain, which we need dearly.”

Chen is finding a way to get through the blood-brain barrier for successful disease testing, starting with Alzheimer’s.

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