Alzheimer’s is set to become one of the defining illness of the 21st century with the potential to affect up to 16 million by 2050. With no cures in sight, a form of deep brain stimulation (DBS) through a “brain pacemaker” has now been put on trial to see if it could help manage this debilitating disease.
The “brain pacemaker” is a surgically implanted set of tiny electrodes that lightly zap the frontal lobes of the brain. Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center recently carried out an extremely small study to see whether the device can slow the decline of problem-solving and decision-making skills in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s still early days for this research, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, but the results of this three-person trial suggest it could hold the potential to slow down the progression of dementia in some people.
The frontal lobe is responsible for things like problem solving, organization and good judgment," co-author Dr Douglas Scharre, director of the Division of Cognitive Neurology at Wexner Medical Center, said in a statement. "By stimulating this region of the brain, patients’ cognitive functionality declined more slowly than a typical Alzheimer’s patient.”
On the other hand, independent experts are saying it's too early to make a proper judgment on the ability of deep brain stimulation to manage Alzheimer’s, with one psychiatrist even suggesting that the benefits are "most likely placebo effect".
LaVonne Moore, an 85-year-old from Ohio, is one of the 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease (video below). When she entered the study in 2013, her declining condition meant she was unable to make herself a meal. After two years of deep brain stimulation, she could assemble ingredients and cook a basic meal almost independently. She was also able to plan the right clothing for the weather, make outings, and regain a sense of independence.
Her husband of 65 years, Tom Moore, said LaVonne’s condition has worsened, but noticeably slower than he expected. Tom said: “LaVonne has had Alzheimer's disease longer than anybody I know, and that sounds negative, but it's really a positive thing because it shows that we're doing something right.”
LaVonne was one of the three patients who received the implant. While one of the other patients experienced similarly positive results, the other benefited significantly from the treatment.
These results are obviously not perfect, but with no cures in the pipeline, this type of treatment could show promise. However, other experts not involved in the study are more skeptical about such an interpretation of the results.
“This study has not shown that deep brain stimulation can slow down or improve cognitive and functional decline in Alzheimer’s disease,” Robert Howard, professor of Old Age Psychiatry at UCL, said in a statement. “It has shown (albeit in a small sample of three patients) that deep brain stimulation appears to be safe and well-tolerated in people with Alzheimer’s disease.”