New Alzheimer's Treatment: The Brain Pacemaker

New Alzheimer's Treatment: Brain Pacemaker

Written by Alex Reid
Posted February 22, 2013

In a new trial for Alzheimer's treatment, a pacemaker-like device has been implanted into the brain of an early stage Alzheimer's patient. This is the first time this kind of operation has taken place in the United States. The trail is part of a federally funded clinical research designed to slaw or stop the effects of the disease. The surgery to implant the device took place at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was performed by neurosurgeon William S. Anderson, M.D. Anderson will also perform a second procedure later this month to implant the device on another patient. Researchers hope that this treatment will prove more effective than the recent drug trials which have reportedly failed.

“Recent failures in Alzheimer's disease trials using drugs such as those designed to reduce the build up of beta amyloid plaques in the brain have sharpened the need for alternative strategies,” said Paul B. Rosenberg, site director of the trials and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “This is a very different approach, whereby we are trying to enhance the function of the brain mechanically. It's a whole new avenue for potential treatment for a disease becoming all the more common with the aging of the population.”

The device is designed to boost memory and reverse cognitive decline by applying low-voltage electrical charges to the patient's brain. 40 additional patients are expected to receive the implantation throughout the next year. The trial is only available for patients whose cognitive impairment is mild enough that they can decide for themselves to participate.

While this is the first time this type of treatment is being used for Alzheimer's, more than 80,000 patients who suffer from the neurodegenerative disorder Parkinson's disease have already undergone the procedure over the past 15 years, with varying degrees of success. Researchers are also testing the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation on depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder resistant to other therapies.

“We are very excited about the possibilities of this potentially new way to treat Alzheimer's,” says Constantine G. Lyketsos, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer's Treatment Center in Baltimore.

The procedure to implant the device involves drilling holes into the skull and connecting wires from brain pathways to the part of the brain where memories are made. The wires are attached to pacemaker-like device which generates tiny electrical impulses 130 times a second. According to Rosenberg, patients cannot feel any of the impulses. Rosenberg went on to say, “deep brain stimulation might prove to be a useful mechanism for treating Alzheimer's disease, or it might help us develop less invasive treatments based on the same mechanism.”

For the trial, half of the patients will have the devices turned on two weeks after surgery, while the other half will have them turned on after one year. Neither the patients nor doctors will know which group starts when.