The applications for gold within modern medicine are extensive and to some surprising. The use of gold in medicine began around 1890 when bacteriologist Robert Koch discovered that compounds containing gold prevented the growth of the bacillus that caused tuberculosis. His golden discovery landed him the Nobel Prize.

Since that time the use of gold within medicine has expanded to patch damaged blood vessels, nerves, bones, and membranes. Gold is also used to treat several forms of cancer. Gold pellets help to inhibit prostate cancer in men. In women with ovarian cancer, colloidal gold is used to treat the disease. Once thought untreatable heart conditions are now cured using gold-coated lasers. The military has designed a lightweight laser using gold-plated contacts that allow medics to seal wounds on the battlefield and give the seriously injured a better chance of living.

Scientists have now found yet another medicinal use for gold. N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) are receptors humans need to function. Current medication for Alzheimer’s cannot distinguish between the NMDA that is necessary for daily cognitive tasks and the extra NMDA which cause the disease. Current medication also have side effects that include hallucinations and coma. Alex Savchenko of Stanford University and Elena Molokanova of startup, Nanotools Bioscience have developed a nanoparticle that blocks the disease-causing NMDA.

The concept that too much NMDA is not a new idea and according to Howard Gendelman, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, “People have made a lot of money on trying to block it, but the clinical use hasn’t been that high because of the side effects.”

Savchenko and Molokanova have created a particle that is composed of gold, memantine, and polyethylene glycol. The particle is called AuM and measures 13 nanometers, making it too big to fit in the synapses between neurons, but still big enough to interact with the disease-causing NMDA.

While more studies are needed, the findings are encouraging. Savchenko compared AuM to a dog. “Before this, the dog-or memantine-would run wild. Now the dog is more useful, in a sense, because you have a way to control where it goes.” There are 5.4 million people currently suffering with Alzheimer’s in the United States. This is only one disease, in one country that could benefit from using gold to treat patients. The implications would be tremendous if gold is truly able to guide where medication is used within the human body.