Our hearts get pacemakers to help them tick, so why not our brains, to help them think?
Doctors in Arizona are working on surgical implants to stimulate the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, hoping to slow the cognitive and functional declines of the disease.
Elizabeth “Ann” Alderson, one of the Alzheimer’s patients in their recently completed clinical trial, showed improvement when the implant to stimulate her brain was turned on, her family said.
“Within two weeks everyone who is in contact regularly with Ann noticed a difference,” said Jay Alderson, her husband. The couple live in Phoenix.
“I noticed that her cognitive abilities were improved — not dramatically, but noticeably,” he said.
Doctors at Barrow Neurological Institute, part of Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, have just begun a five-year international phase three implant trial.
Using a neurostimulator to send an electrical current, the implant aims deep stimulation at the fornix, the part of the brain critical to cognitive functioning and memory formation.
Researchers hope to enroll more than 200 patients in the United States, Canada and Germany in the phase three trial, which is the final step before review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Alderson, 80, was one of 42 patients in the phase two portion of the clinical trial, which was designed to determine whether the procedure was safe and could be tolerated by patients.
Brain scans found the implants showed a “clinically significant” benefit for the patients’ cognition and function, researchers said.
“It’s a horrible disease but still livable for me,” said Alderson, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s seven years ago. “It’s important for people to know.”
She can no longer cook, clean or read books, but can carry on conversations and watch television. She and her husband think the disease’s progression has been slowed by the surgical implant.
Some 5.8 million Americans have the degenerative neurological disease, a number predicted to rise to nearly 14 million by 2050, according to the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association.
“Alzheimer’s disease is one of the greatest challenges that faces our society at this point,” said Dr. Anna Burke, principal investigator of the trial and director of Barrow’s Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders Division.
A separate study using deep brain electrical stimulation recently produced memory flashbacks, some decades old, in patients with Alzheimer’s.
Looking to see whether deep stimulation improved cognitive function over time, it found no significant changes in their thinking, reasoning or memory abilities.
Also, surface and non-invasive electrical stimulation has shown some cognitive improvements in dementia patients.
Deep brain stimulation, meanwhile, has been used effectively with people who have Parkinson’s disease.
The Barrow study aims to see whether deep stimulation of the brain’s circuitry can slow neurodegeneration, researchers said.
“We are looking at the brain as millions and millions of circuits that are all interconnected,” said Dr. Francisco Ponce, director of Barrow’s Deep Brain Stimulation Program.
Researchers are seeking ways to rewire those circuits in conditions such as epilepsy, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome as well as Alzheimer’s, Ponce said.
Barrow’s phase three trial will look at its effectiveness in patients over age 65 with mild Alzheimer’s.
“There’s an urgent need and there’s a need for a new strategy,” Ponce said.
“Drug trials have been slow to produce results, so we are excited to assess whether deep brain stimulation could offer hope for patients and their families.”