THURSDAY, March 28 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers are testing
whether applying electrical stimulation directly to the brains of
people with Alzheimer's disease might improve thinking, focus and
The process, called direct brain stimulation, or deep brain
stimulation (DBS), has been used to treat Parkinson's disease and
is being tested as a treatment for other conditions, including
traumatic brain injuries and obesity, according to the
Two women have had the electronic brain stimulators implanted,
and eight more patients will participate in this initial
"There are a lot of studies out there that say physical or mental stimulation may reduce the risk or impact of Alzheimer's disease, so we wondered if increasing stimulation to certain parts of the brain may be protective," explained study co-author Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the division of cognitive neurology at Ohio State University.
Scharre said that while Alzheimer's tends to affect the
temporal, parietal and frontal lobes of the brain, he wanted to
focus particularly on the frontal lobe for two reasons: it's
typically the last brain area to degenerate, and its functions --
decision-making, problem-solving, focus and alertness -- are
necessary for a person to be independent.
Placing the DBS system involves two steps. First, in a surgical
procedure that requires about a three-day hospital stay, the
patient has tiny holes made in each side of the skull, and
hair-thin wires are placed in precise spots of the brain using
computer-guided technology. The wires are fed through the neck --
in the subcutaneous tissue just under the skin -- and left there
for about a week while the burr holes heal, explained Scharre.
Then, in an outpatient surgery, the patient has two battery
packs that look like heart pacemakers placed on each side of the
chest. The wires placed the week before are then connected to the
Six weeks after the second surgery, the stimulator is turned on.
"My job [as the neurologist] is to find the right settings to get
the maximum benefit," said Scharre. Each wire has four contacts,
providing a wide range of different voltage combinations, and the
challenge is to determine the right amount to produce the best
benefit, he explained.
The research could potentially be of value to millions of
Americans: a recent report from the Alzheimer's Association found
that one in every three seniors now dies while suffering from
Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. Alzheimer's disease
becomes progressively disabling with loss of memory, thinking
skills, the ability to socialize and independence.
To assess the effects of DBS, the researchers give short tests
to the patients, starting about two months after the surgeries, to
evaluate their level of attention and alertness, and to see how
fast they can complete a particular task. For example, one test
shows a variety of different geometric shapes all over the page,
and [the patient] is asked to pick out all the stars in a 30-second
In addition to the evaluation of thinking-related functions, the
researchers look for brain wave changes and perform MRI scans, PET
imaging, brain scans and spinal fluid analysis. Scharre said the
researchers will need a year's worth of data to assess each patient
and about two years to achieve the goal of involving 10 people in
The first person to have the pacemaker implanted was Kathy
Sanford, 57, who has early onset Alzheimer's and has just finished
12 weeks of stimulation. "Initially, we've seen some improvements
in speed of processing and she did better on shifting tasks,"
reported Scharre. "While we're happy we're seeing changes, I would
be very, very cautious; the real test is whether we see sustained
effects over time."
Kathy's father, Joseph Jester, said the family has already seen
signs that Kathy's memory is improving.
Kathy is highly motivated to participate in the study, Jester
explained. "She has two daughters and a grandson who she is worried
about, and [she] hopes if this treatment works, they would have an
alternative should they inherit this disease."
Jester said while he appreciates the opportunity for Kathy to
participate in the study, it has been time consuming and sometimes
disappointing as the physicians adjust and readjust pacemaker
settings. "The doctors assure us that [her settings] are on the
best place possible and we need patience as she goes forward from
As for other potential downsides to participating in the
research, the two patients who have had the pacemakers and battery
packs surgically placed have had no complications, according to
Scharre. Should they have any problems associated with the actual
stimulation, it's easy to just turn it off, he noted.
Experts encouraged caution at this point in the study.
"This is interesting but preliminary research," said Maria Carrillo, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association. But it is good to see alternative treatment methods for Alzheimer's are being tested, she added.
Learn how to create a plan to deal with Alzheimer's from the
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