New Treatment For Alzheimer’s: Deep Brain Stimulation

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s or similar dementias, and that number is expected to only rise as the baby boomer generation ages.

The main risk factors for the disease include simply getting older, along with having a close blood relative who has certain genes including the APOE epsilon4 allele according to the CDC. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 50 to 80 percent of dementia cases.

A healthy brain is a connected brain. One circuit signals another to switch on and retrieve the memories needed to recall a phone number, react to a joke told, drive a car or cook a meal.  The disease’s hallmark plaques act as a roadblock, stopping the “on” switch so that healthy circuits farther away are deactivated.  Early in the disease, Alzheimer’s kills only certain spots. It progressively gets worse until the person can no longer take care of themself.

Dr. Jeffrey Gorodetsky, a SignatureMD-affiliated family practitioner in South Florida, says that he has dealt with numerous patients with Alzheimer’s disease in his career. He goes on to say, “There are many challenges for families of Alzheimer’s patients. Some of these include spouses having to deal with the declining mental function of their partner of many years, as well as adult children of Alzheimer’s patients having to take care of their declining parent, often living distances that are far away. These patients have numerous and increasing healthcare needs over the years, and often lose their ability to drive and with it their independence.”

Overall, the disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only cause in the top 10 that has no cure or preventative medication, this is according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

There are two kinds of Alzheimer’s: early-onset and late-onset.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s begins before 60. This debilitating form only affects 4 percent of the Alzheimer’s population. The much more common late-onset Alzheimer’s affects people over 60.

While certain genes have been identified in people with early-onset forms, genetic connections for late-onset forms have not been made. Symptoms of this form of the disease usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.

There is a breakthrough in research that may help people combat the affliction. Researchers have discovered that deep electric brain stimulation may treat Alzheimer’s.

A study at Ohio State University is showing promise, as scientists are implanting pacemaker-like devices deep in the brains of some people with early-stage Alzheimer’s in hopes of slowing the disease’s damage. The tiny wires send mild jolts of electricity to stimulate the brain.  This new approach is called deep brain stimulation, or DBS.

CBS news reports that small holes are drilled into the patient’s skull so tiny wires can be implanted into just the right spot.

These “brain pacemakers” are just in the beginning stages of research, and are giving researchers new hope, looking beyond existing drugs like Aricept to slow or reverse the disease.

As it stands, no one knows if it might work, and if it does, how long the effects might last. Dr. Gorodetsky followed up by saying that while he currently treats his Alzheimer’s patients with the standard regimen of drugs and neurological consultations, he encourages patients with “an interest in new therapies to pursue it if able to at research centers.”

The doctors at Ohio State University speculate that constant electrical stimulation of brain circuits involved in memory and thinking may keep neural networks active for longer, easing dementia’s damage.

DBS for other brain diseases

CBS reports that DBS is used to block the tremors of Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. The continuous jolts quiet overactive nerve cells, with few side effects. Scientists also are testing whether stimulating other parts of the brain might help lift depression or curb appetite among the obese.

They report that Canadian researchers back in 2003 stumbled onto the Alzheimer’s possibility. According to researchers, the electrical jolts in the brain of an obese man unlocked a flood of old memories. Continuing his DBS also improved his ability to learn. He didn’t have dementia, but the researchers wanted to see if this would help others afflicted with memory issues.

The Canadian researchers have partnered with four U.S. medical centers – Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, University of Florida and Arizona’s Banner Health System – to try DBS in a part of the brain called the fornix, one of those memory hubs, in 40 patients.  So far the results have been promising in several patients.

SignatureMD doctors work closely with families coping with an Alzheimer’s patient and keep up with the latest research and drug therapies to help stave off the advancement of the disease.  An early diagnosis can be helpful, medically and personally. The first thing to do is see your SignatureMD doctor, and try not to panic, especially since SignatureMD doctors are focused on prevention. Not all memory loss is a sign of the disease. While some factors, such as your genes, are out of your control, many powerful lifestyle factors are within your sphere of influence.

Remember that the six pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle are:

  •     Regular exercise
  •     Healthy diet
  •     Mental stimulation
  •     Quality sleep
  •     Stress management
  •     An active social life


I. What is Alzheimer’s? – Alzheimer’s Association (02/2013)
II. Electric Brain Stimulation May Treat Alzheimer’s – CBS (01/21/2013)

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