By 2050, the number of Americans living with Alzheimer's is expected to triple — from roughly 5.2 million to potentially 16 million people. While there is still no cure for the disease, researchers continue to forge ahead with the belief that their innovative methods could lead to medical breakthroughs.
The latest effort comes from researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine and neurosurgeon William S. Anderson, M.D. who recently implanted a pacemaker-like device into the brain of an early-stage Alzheimer's patient. The device, which has already been used to treat people with Parkinson's disease, provides deep brain stimulation in the form of low-voltage electrical charges to boost memory and reverse cognitive decline.
Preliminary safety stages of the research began in 2010, when similar devices were implanted in six Canadian patient's afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Researchers found that over a 13 months, patients showed sustained increases in glucose metabolism, which indicates neuronal activity. In most Alzheimer's patients, glucose metabolism decreases over that same time frame.
The most recent surgery performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of the first such operations in the United States.
The procedure involves drilling holes into the patient's skull and implanting wires into the brain's fornix, the pathway essential to bringing information to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain where learning begins and memories are made. It's also where the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer's start to appear.
Wires connected to the "brain pacemaker" emit small electrical impulses 130 times a second. Patients don't even feel the current, according to Paul Rosenberg, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the
"Recent failures in Alzheimer's disease trials using drugs such as
those designed to reduce the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in the
brain have sharpened the need for alternative strategies," Rosenberg said in a press release. "This is a very different approach, whereby we are trying to
enhance the function of the brain mechanically. It’s a whole new avenue
for potential treatment for a disease becoming all the more common with
the aging of the population."