Mild Electricity to Brain May Help Parkinson's

Electrically stimulating the surface of the brain appears to improve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease without causing side effects.

That’s what French researchers found in lab experiments with baboons.

Parkinson’s disease (search) scrambles the brain’s movement signals to the rest of the body, leading to shaking, weakness, and sometimes partial paralysis.

It’s not the first time scientists have used electrical stimulation to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Another technique — deep brain stimulation (search) — has shown encouraging results in improving the symptoms, but it’s a complicated and risky surgery, requiring electrodes to be placed deep within the brain.

A different approach may work just as well, with fewer hazards.

The strategy comes from researchers including Xavier Drouot of University Paris. First, they used chemicals to induce Parkinson’s-like symptoms in baboons. Next, they placed electrodes on the surface of the baboon’s brains, a technique called motor cortex stimulation (search), focusing on the brain regions that control movement.

Improvement came quickly. After a few minutes of electrical stimulation, symptoms were significantly reduced in moderately to severely disabled baboons.

During the half-hour sessions, the baboons had a 50 percent increase in how far and fast they moved.

Parts of the brain that oversee movement initiation were especially affected. And there were no side effects, the researchers say.

It wasn’t a permanent cure. The benefits ended soon after the stimulation stopped.

Motor cortex stimulation is simpler and safer than deep brain stimulation, say the researchers. Both methods could be equally efficient, but more research is needed to find out.

The study appears in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal Neuron.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Drouot, X. Neuron, Dec. 2, 2004; vol 44: pp 769-778. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Parkinson’s Disease: Topic Overview.” News release, Cell Press.