Neuroscience research & Alzheimer's disease

Leah Hanson and Bill Frey II

The HealthPartners Center for Memory & Aging is a national center that relies on charitable gifts to conduct nationally recognized research for Alzheimer's disease and other brain disorders and to improve patient care. Learn about all of our available neurosciences clinical trials and find a clinical trial that may be right for you.   


  • Patented intranasal drug delivery: The US Department of Commerce has awarded the Center for Memory & Aging a patent on this method of drug delivery. Most drugs don't enter the brain through the bloodstream due to the blood-brain barrier. However, we have shown that drugs given as nose drops can enter the brain without entering the bloodstream.



  • Intranasal insulin improves memory: Decreased insulin signaling in the brain contributes to both memory loss and brain degeneration in Alzheimer's disease. At the Center for Memory & Aging, we developed an intranasal insulin treatment that targets insulin to the brain without causing unwanted side effects. When sprayed high into the nasal cavity, insulin travels rapidly into the brain along the nerves involved in smell.Researchers in Germany have shown that this treatment improves both memory and mood in normal adults.


    With collaborators at the University of Washington, we showed that intranasal insulin improves memory, attention and functioning in patients in early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and in mild cognitive impairment. Research is now determining how long the benefits of intranasal insulin can last with prolonged treatment. Our current intranasal insulin clinical trial assesses the safety and benefits of this treatment over six months using the most advanced nasal spray device for delivering insulin to the brain.


  • Intranasal deferoxamine binds iron that builds up in certain brain disorders: Free iron accumulates abnormally in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury and other brain disorders. The free iron causes oxidative stress and brain damage. Deferoxamine, an approved generic drug that binds iron, has been found in animals to treat a variety of brain disorders of this type. This is an example of repurposing an existing drug to treat brain disorders by using intranasal delivery to bypass the blood-brain barrier and target the drug to the brain.


    With collaborators at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, we have discovered that intranasal deferoxamine bypasses the blood-brain barrier to treat and prevent brain damage in animal models of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke and certain other major brain disorders. In addition to treating and reducing brain damage from stroke, intranasal deferoxamine significantly improves memory in normal mice and reduces memory loss in mouse models of Alzheimer's disease. It also protects the brain against degeneration and improves movement in animal models of Parkinson's disease.

    We are seeking to test this noninvasive, inexpensive and practical method of treatment and prevention in patients with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, stroke, concussion, hemorrhage, traumatic brain injury and other brain disorders. The National Institute of Aging has funded some safety studies necessary to enter human clinical trials with intranasal deferoxamine, and the results to date are promising.

    While a two-year clinical trial of intramuscular deferoxamine was shown to reduce cognitive decline in Alzheimer's patients by 50%, some side effects occurred.One intranasal deferoxamine safety clinical trial was conducted in humans, and it showed no significant side effects. Intranasal deferoxamine may also help protect military personnel from brain damage associated with closed head injury and for rapid treatment of closed head injury in the field. Similarly, it may be useful to treat auto accident victims with a head injury. We hope to conduct the first phase 1 human clinical trial of intranasal deferoxamine when funding becomes available. 


  • Developing treatments for certain brain disorders using intranasal adult cells: With collaborators in Germany, William Frey II, PhD, of the Alzheimer's Research Center discovered that therapeutic cells, including adult stem cells, immune cells and genetically engineered cells, can be delivered to the brain intranasally. This method was shown to successfully treat Parkinson's disease in an animal model with intranasal adult bone marrow-derived stem cells.


    Intranasal stem cells bypass the blood-brain barrier to target the brain by traveling along the nerves involved in smell. Once in the brain, adult stem cells were shown to target the damaged areas of the brain specifically to treat the underlying disease. Researchers at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands have demonstrated the effectiveness of intranasal stem cell treatment in animal models of neonatal cerebral ischemia, brain damage and brain hemorrhage.

    Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta have used our intranasal stem cell treatment successfully in an animal model of stroke, and researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden have shown that intranasal immune cell therapy reduced symptoms and inflammation in multiple sclerosis. Intranasal adult neural stem cells have also been shown to improve an animal model of multiple sclerosis, as have intranasal mesenchymal stromal cells. Still other researchers have reported that intranasal stem cells target and treat brain tumors.

    With collaborators, Dr. Frey has also reported that intranasal adult stem cells and other therapeutic cells target the areas of the brain damaged by Alzheimer's disease in mice. This method can help develop adult stem cell, immune cell and genetically engineered cell therapies for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, stroke, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, progressive supranuclear palsy, Huntington's, neonatal ischemia, brain tumors, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.

    Human nerve cells are known to reach the brain by using the same nerves involved in smell. In addition, disease-causing cells such as the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, which is found in polluted water, are known to enter the human brain by the same pathway and cause ameobic infection of the brain. Fortunately, we have now discovered how to use this pathway to deliver therapeutic cells to the brain to treat brain disorders.