Sunday, December 9, 2012

Brain implant to aid patients with Alzheimer's disease

Our brain consists of many wires that all connect to each other and communicate by means of electricity. Small electrical pulses travel along the wires and the patterns result in all kinds of behavioural changes in the brain cells that receive these signals. That means electricity is essential for adequate brain function, and therefore it is something that is being investigated as a potential therapy. Previous studies with a technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS) showed that it has the potential to reverse brain damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. Now, researchers have developed a brain implant that can be worn by patients for permanent DBS.

Researchers from the John Hopkins University created the device and started the first clinical trial to test it in human beings, as safety studies have already been performed. So far, one patient has already received the implant, and a second patient is scheduled for surgery somewhere this month. Ultimately, about 40 people ought to receive the DBS implant, as part of the clinical trial.

DBS sends out targeted electrical pulses. The implant is supposed to electrically stimulate the brain area that is affected the most in patients with Alzheimer's: the hippocampus. This brain structure is required for processing memories, but once the cells start dying, it gets harder and harder to memorize new things. DBS is supposed to send just the right signals to regrow memory cells in the hippocampus.

If all goes well, the clinical trial ought to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease, and perhaps even ameliorate the symptoms. Because dementia often progresses slowly, we will probably see the results in a couple of years. So far, the DBS implant has already reached the clinical stage and has been deemed safe, which means things are looking good. 

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