Although there is currently no treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine are conducting a study to test the effectiveness of a brain “pacemaker,” according to a news release on their website. Parkinson’s patients have already seen improvement with the device, and reports state that the pacemaker has reversed cognitive decline and helped patients gain a memory boost. For the first time in the U.S., John Hopkins surgeons implanted the device in a patient to begin clinical trials in hopes of finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Many drugs have been tested as a potential form of treatment for Alzheimer’s, but researchers at Johns Hopkins wanted to take a different approach to finding a treatment. The pacemaker uses low-voltage electrical charges to encourage deep brain stimulation. Thousands of Parkinson’s patients have undergone the surgery over the past 15 years and report fewer tremors. While six patients with Alzheimer’s received the implants in Canada as part of a preliminary study, this is the first time the procedure has occurred in the U.S.
Over the next year, surgeons at Johns Hopkins and other institutions who have agreed to take part in the study will implant pacemakers in about 40 patients. Only patients with mild cognitive impairment who can decide if they want to participate are considered. Surgeons will drill holes into the skull and implant wires into the fornix, which is a brain pathway that brings information to the hippocampus. This area is crucial in creating memories and in the learning process, and it is usually where the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear. Patients will have wires attached to a stimulator that sends electrical impulses into the brain 130 times a second, which the patients won’t be able to feel.
Although all patients will undergo the surgery and receive the brain pacemaker, half of the patients will have stimulators turned on two weeks post surgery, and the other half will have their stimulators turned on after a year. This study is double blind, so neither the patients nor the doctors treating them will know which patients’ stimulators are turned on.
Previous studies have tested drugs that are designed to reduce the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in the brain, but the failure in these trials has spurred research for alternative forms of treatment. Site director of the trial’s Johns Hopkins location, Paul B. Rosenberg, notes how their approach to mechanically enhance the function of the brain is innovative and will hopefully help patients in the near future: “It’s a whole new avenue for potential treatment for a disease that’s becoming all the more common with the aging population.”