Researchers at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin have discovered a brain network that, when stimulated, can improve Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical procedure used to treat specific neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, epilepsy, and dystonia. More than 160,000 individuals receive this therapy annually.
Several psychiatric conditions, such as drug addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and treatment-resistant depression, have been the subject of prior studies that looked at DBS as a potential treatment.
Deep brain stimulation, administered by a pacemaker-like device, can also be one of the potential treatments for alleviating Alzheimer’s symptoms. A group of researchers at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin has found that altering a particular network in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients can lessen their symptoms. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, has provided hope for additional investigation in this area.
What is Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)?
DBS is a surgical process in which doctors implant electrodes in a specific brain region of a person. These electrodes connect to wires that lead to an electric generator (similar to a cardiac pacemaker) inserted under a person’s collarbone.
The electrodes produce electric pulses that disrupt any aberrant signals the brain may receive that result in disease symptoms like tremors or movement difficulties.
DBS and Alzheimer’s
In a previous Canadian study about the use of DBS to treat obesity, the researchers discovered that DBS produced flashbacks to childhood memories in some study participants. They then investigated if stimulating this specific spot in the fornix portion of the brain could help treat Alzheimer’s. This observation became the basis of the current study.
The fornix houses the brain’s white matter. Previous studies have also linked fornix neurodegeneration to Alzheimer’s and looked into using DBS to stimulate that part of the brain to treat dementia.
The current study added to the body of knowledge by examining data from electrodes placed in the same area of the fornix in 46 persons with moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
Following an analysis, scientists reported no improvement in most patients’ symptoms. However, several people “benefited considerably” from the treatment. These participants had a specific brain circuit stimulated and showed cognitive benefits after treatment.
According to Dr. Horn, one of the authors, this retrospective study aims to determine the variations between participants in which the treatment performed better than others.
DBS therapy obstacles
What has prevented DBS from treating Alzheimer’s while the doctors are already employing it to treat neurological disorders like Parkinson’s? Dr. Jean-Philippe Langevin, a neurosurgeon and director of the Restorative Neurosurgery and Deep Brain Stimulation Program for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, has pointed out two chief reasons for this.
First, surgery is a more invasive and risky process than other therapies. The second is that DBS comes with an implantable device that needs adjustments, and often medical professionals struggle to use the programming devices.
He further pointed out that manufacturers have recently improved the software and device programmers, making them more user-friendly and intuitive.
What will be the next phases in DBS research?
Although DBS technology is advancing, it might still be some time before Alzheimer’s patients can get this treatment.
Dr. Horn stated that The ADvance II trial is presently underway in various centers worldwide. According to his understanding, if successful, it would increase the likelihood that the technique will receive both an FDA approval and a CE mark. As a result, many individuals who meet the requirements for which researchers have found DBS to be beneficial may be able to receive therapy.
Nevertheless, Dr. Horn cautioned that DBS is not a cure for neurodegenerative illnesses such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, the disease will worsen, and the treatment will be symptomatic, at best helping to alleviate some of the symptoms for a short period.
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