- Early research has found that Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) might enhance memory in patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease, but more study is needed for a distinct clinical advantage to be confirmed.
- DBS is already being used for other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s. The link between DBS and Alzheimer’s was discovered serendipitously when a study using DBS to suppress the appetite of an obese patient resulted in unexpected memory enhancement.
- A small phase 1 safety study involving six Alzheimer’s patients showed promising results with some subjects showing halted or improved cognitive decline. Brain imaging also revealed increased activity in areas typically damaged by Alzheimer’s.
- Despite promising preliminary results, DBS is a risky and invasive procedure involving the insertion of electrodes into the brain. The technique needs further testing and regulatory approval before it can be widely used.
- The senior author of the study, Dr. Andres M. Lozano, holds intellectual property in the field of deep brain stimulation, indicating a potential conflict of interest.
In early preliminary research, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) subtly enhanced memory in a handful of patients with mild Alzheimer’s Disease.
While the authors iterated this is a very early stage of findings and emphasized “no distinct clinical advantage can be confirmed,” test results coupled with brain imaging suggest this technique may offer some hope for tackling this untreatable illness in the future.
A noted neurologist, Dr. Richard Lipton, who is not connected with the study, shared his insights. He warned against over-interpretation of these findings, but also found the results exciting. “Alzheimer’s is not a disease that stays the same. It’s a disease that deteriorates. If a treatment can halt you where you are a year later, it can be considered successful.”
Deep Brain Stimulation in other Neurological Diseases
Deep brain stimulation or DBS is a method already in service for people suffering from other neurodegenerative diseases, most notably, Parkinson’s.
The Link Between DBS and Alzheimer’s: A Serendipitous Discovery
The emergence of Alzheimer’s related research in the context of DBS is a story of a happy accident. In 2003, the same group of researchers was working on a different field: Utilizing DBS to suppress appetite in an obese patient, leading to some unexpected results.
During the process, they implanted an electrode in the areas of the brain controlling appetite. Dr. Andres M. Lozano, the senior author of a paper published in the Annals of Neurology, described an unexpected event. “When we inserted the electrodes and activated them, surprisingly, we unlocked some of his memories from over 30 years ago,” he said.
With time, the researchers also noticed “significant enhancements on the performance on memory tests” in this single test patient, which opened doors to a new study involving Alzheimer’s patients.
The Current Phase 1 Safety Study: Deep Brain Stimulation and Alzheimer’s
In the small phase 1 safety study, six patients had electrodes embedded in their brains, continuously stimulating areas known to affect memory. All subjects maintained their Alzheimer’s prescriptions throughout the trial.
The results were promising. Some participants did not regress; some even showed improvements in their cognitive function. Additionally, brain imaging scans detected increased glucose metabolism in the areas usually damaged by Alzheimer’s, indicating a higher level of brain activity.
Dr. Lozano elaborated, “Areas still open for business can still be activated,” adding that patients with milder forms of Alzheimer’s appeared to benefit the most from deep brain stimulation.
The technique seems to enhance activity in less-damaged regions of the brain, thereby “reactivating these brain circuits that are important for cognitive functioning,” according to Dr. Lozano.
In this minor trial, DBS was shown to be relatively safe, with patients showing no significant weight changes, sleep disturbances, or body chemistry alterations post-surgery. Yet, it should be noted that DBS is a risky and invasive procedure.
As Dr. Lipton pointed out, “This involves drilling a hole through the skull and guiding a needle through the brain tissue to a specific area. If it goes through a blood vessel, it could cause bleeding that can result in significant harm. DBS is not a benign procedure.”
The researchers are now planning a larger, phase 2 study. However, before DBS can be available for widespread use, the technique needs to be approved. As for Dr. Lozano, he reported potential conflict of interest, as he holds intellectual property in the field of deep brain stimulation.
For more information on deep brain stimulation, you can visit the Mayo Clinic’s page on DBS.