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Brain Stimulation Shown to Slow Alzheimer’s Progression

Douglas Scharre

Douglas Scharre (Ohio State University)

31 January 2018. A small-scale study shows an implanted device providing mild electrical stimulation to the brain’s frontal lobe slows the loss of cognitive functions from Alzheimer’s disease. Advance results of the study by researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus appear yesterday in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (paid subscription required).

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative condition affecting growing numbers of older people worldwide. People with Alzheimer’s disease often have deposits of abnormal substances in spaces between brain cells, known as amyloid-beta proteins, as well as misfolded tangles of proteins inside brain cells known as tau. An estimated 5.5 million people in the U.S. are now living with Alzheimer’s-related dementia, with that number expected to grow to 11.6 million by 2040.

The team led by Douglas Scharre, professor of neurology and psychiatry, is taking a somewhat different approach to treating Alzheimer’s disease, by addressing the loss of functions that result from the condition rather than focusing on memory improvement. “We have many memory aides, tools and pharmaceutical treatments to help Alzheimer’s patients with memory,” says Scharre in a university statement, “but we don’t have anything to help with improving their judgments, making good decisions, or increasing their ability to selectively focus attention on the task at hand and avoid distractions. These skills are necessary in performing daily tasks such as making the bed, choosing what to eat, and having meaningful socializing with friends and family.”

Scharre and colleagues tested a technique targeting the frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for day-to-day behavioral and cognitive functions, in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The technique, called deep brain stimulation, uses electrodes implanted into the frontal lobe, with electronic pulses produced by a controller implanted in the chest, much like a heart pacemaker. Three individuals with Alzheimer’s disease used the device for 18 months, with cognitive functions and performance rated on a standard scale for people with the condition. Three other people, also with Alzheimer’s disease, were matched to the test participants for comparison.

Neurosurgeon and co-author Ali Rezai, now director of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at West Virginia University, conducted the clinical trial. The results show all 3 participants receiving deep brain stimulation show less functional decline than the individuals in the comparison group, with 2 of the stimulation recipients showing meaningfully less decline.

“The frontal lobe is responsible for things like problem solving, organization and good judgment,” notes Scharre. “By stimulating this region of the brain, patients’ cognitive functionality declined more slowly than a typical Alzheimer’s patient.” The authors say the stimulation recipients tolerated the device and experience well, without significant adverse events.

Rezai is listed as an inventor on a 2013 patent for the technology, assigned to the Cleveland Clinic.  The researchers are now exploring non-surgical and less invasive methods of stimulating the frontal lobe. The following video tells more about the study, including the experiences of one participant.

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