Mind and Body

Device to slow down Alzheimer's disease

New research suggests a ‘brain pacemaker’ may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.  In a small study, John Hopkins University scientists found a device that sends electrical impulses to the brain’s memory regions appeared to increase neuron activity in patients who were suspected to have the disease.

The researchers implanted the device in six people with mild or early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.  The device includes electrodes, which are implanted in the brain, and a pacemaker, which is implanted in the chest, connected to the electrodes by wires.  The pacemaker orders the electrodes to continuously stimulate the brain.  This technique is known as deep brain stimulation, or DBS.

A year after implanting the device, the researchers conducted PET scans on the patients and found they actually showed an increase of glucose metabolism, which the brain uses as fuel to function.  Greater amounts of glucose metabolism also indicate greater amounts of brain cell activity, according to the researchers.

“In the regular course of Alzheimer’s, glucose metabolism is decreased and a widespread network of brain regions are affected,” the study’s first author Gwen Smith, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told FoxNews.com.

“We find that increases in glucose metabolism lead to improvements in brain function correlated with behaviors – so patients with greater increases had better clinical outcomes in Alzheimer’s disease as far as keeping the disease where it is, and keeping it stable,” Smith added.

DBS has previously been used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and depression.  To treat Parkinson’s, the device targets the motor regions rather than stimulating the brain’s memory regions.
According to Smith, the idea to use DBS to treat Alzheimer’s came about when Dr. Andres Lozano, the lead researcher of the study and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Toronto, used the treatment on an obese man to target regions in the brain related to appetite suppression.  Lozano observed the man unexpectedly had significant increases in memory as well, leading Lozano to pursue the effects of DBS in relation to Alzheimer’s.

While the results are typically more striking in Parkinson’s patients, Smith said the outcomes of DBS for Alzheimer’s patients were nevertheless “striking.” She and her research team observed that patients with the device showed 15 to 20 percent increases in glucose metabolism after a year and better outcomes in cognition, memory and quality of life reports, as well as increased connectivity in brain circuits associated with memory.

Alzheimer’s disease, which affects as many as 5.1 million people in the U.S., has no treatment or cure. “Until we have either a cure or a better option, this treatment is definitely worth pursuing in further studies,” Smith said.  

While none of the participants in the current study had negative effects related to DBS, Smith said the findings still needed to be confirmed with a larger-scale study.

“I don’t want to oversell the potential for treatment,” Smith said.  “There’s no cure, so people are so desperate to find treatments that are effective.  The results were encouraging, but we’re still very early in testing.”

The study results were published in the journal Archives of Neurology.