Although Reuters is careful to note that the results do not indicate that the small, pacemaker-like device has any hope in acting as a cure, “it may restore some measure of activity in areas of the brain whose decline is linked to Alzheimer’s symptoms like memory loss, depression and agitation,” the article reports.
This study, published online in the Archives of Neurology this week, was undertaken to test whether deep brain stimulation (DBS) “would increase cerebral glucose metabolism in cortical and hippocampal circuits and that increased metabolism would be correlated with better clinical outcomes.”
Gwenn Smith, PhD., the study’s lead author noted that despite the encouraging changes seen in the brains of the participants of this safety study, the technique needs to be tested in a larger population. This trial involved five patients (four men and one woman) with mild, probable Alzheimer’s disease.
This implant is already frequently used in Parkinson’s disease patients to alleviate tremors and help control their movements. Continuous electrical impulses are delivered into the brain with this device.
The patients involved in the study had these devices implanted close to the brain region believed to be important in memory storage. Two weeks later, the researchers turned the devices on and kept the settings and patient medications constant for a year.
To test the effectiveness of this implant, the patients received PET scans at the one, six, and 12-month treatment periods. What they found was an overall increase in brain activity in all of the patients with the implants.
According to Smith, the patients in the trial still experienced decline, though it was less than would be expected. Cognitive function declined in all but one patient, while quality of life actually remained static.
However, researchers note it is not the cognitive measurements that interest them, but rather evidence of increased brain cell activity. Brain cell activity impacted the blood flow and those with better blood flow seemed to have less cognitive decline.
This treatment resembles a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year which also used electric stimulation and showed promise in improving the mental abilities in those with chronic pain, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. The Wall Street Journalexplains that when implanted electrodes stimulated a specific region of the brain known as the entorhinal area, memory improvements were noted.
At this point, few effective Alzheimer’s treatments exist, making these studies very exciting for the medical community. Although researchers in both studies admit the benefits of DBS need further study with far larger test populations, these preliminary results provide much-needed direction in the future treatment of Alzheimer’s and related diseases.