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'Brain pacemaker' may slow effects of Alzheimer's

March 19, 2013 at 1:59 PM ET

While they are careful not to call it a cure, researchers at Ohio State University believe they may be able to reverse some of the ravages left by Alzheimer’s disease by implanting tiny electrodes in a patient’s brain and then hooking those wires up to a sort of pacemaker.

In a pilot study that’s been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the Ohio researchers began with 57-year-old Kathy Sanford, a patient suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Even at her young age Sanford is already suffering severe symptoms. “This is difficult sometimes, you know,” Sanford told TODAY Tuesday.

Her parents, Joe and Peggy Jester, have no symptoms themselves and have had to watch helplessly as their daughter descended into the fog of the mind-robbing disease.

"It's sad for Peggy and I to go through this with a daughter, especially when it should be us and not her," Joe told TODAY. "Your heart just aches when you think about what she's going through because she does have these frustrations and she doesn't want to be like this."

Sanford’s early-onset form of the disease is atypical, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the US. At least 5.2 million Americans suffer from it or some other type of dementia.

Scientists believe that deep-brain stimulation could improve symptoms by jump starting networks gunked up by the sticky proteins generated in Alzheimer’s disease.

Five months ago, at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, Dr. Ali Rezai implanted the tiny, hair-like wires deep in Kathy’s brain and then connected the wires to the pacemakers sitting on her chest.

"That battery sends calming signals to the brain, or activating signals that activate the different parts of this pacemaker wire,” Rezai, a neurosurgeon and director of the neuroscience program at the center explained. “And that involves different frequencies, different intensities..."

Rezai and his colleagues hope that the electrical stimulation will improve the way brain circuits work by stimulating areas damaged by the disease. They say the method is similar to the deep brain stimulation that has helped patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The disease damages many of the brain’s networks, explained Dr. David Wolk, an assistant professor of neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and assistant director of the Penn Memory Center in Philadelphia. Wolk’s group is just starting to screen patients for a trial similar to the one at Ohio State, although the Penn researchers plan to stimulate a different area of the brain.

“The most prominent circuit involved in the disease is the one for memory,” Wolk said. “It’s thought that if we can stimulate that network we can make it perform more effectively.”

The Ohio State researchers have been regularly testing Kathy to see if there are any improvements in her ability to concentrate and solve problems. When they tested her before the pacemaker was turned on, she didn’t fare well. But they’ve seen a steady improvement over the past several months.

Last week, when Kathy came back in for testing, she told them she was doing well and breezed through the tests.

The improvements haven’t been lost on her family.

"We've seen at times she has better memory and she's more sociable, I’ve noticed that,” her father said. “And a little more outgoing. I think that’s a good thing, too.”

While the researchers have cautioned the family not to look at the pacemaker as a cure, they’re happy with the improvements they’ve seen so far.

Neurologist Wolk says there's data showing that deep brain stimulation might actually promote neuronal growth. "One of the few areas that that is capable of producing new neurons as we get older is the hippocampus," says Wolk.

And that’s very important since the hippocampus, which is intimately involved in laying down new memories, is one of the brain regions that is hardest hit by Alzheimer’s disease.

“I think it’s reasonable to try deep brain stimulation for Alzheimer’s,” said Dr. Mark Richardson, an expert not affiliated with any of the new trials and director of epilepsy and functional neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But one thing that’s important to realize is that just as in Parkinson’s disease, there’s no evidence that this slows down or treats the actual cause of the disease. But it may improve symptoms just like it does for Parkinson’s.

Although the Ohio state study is small, it's encouraging, said NBC's chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman. “The real problem [when it comes to Alzheimer’s] is that we don’t have any great drugs in the pipeline,” she said. “We’re just figuring out now.. the kinds of things that might hurt a brain earlier in life and predispose it to Alzheimer’s."

As for Kathy, she says she was never worried about any downside to the surgery to place electrodes deep inside her brain. “I was the first to say, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it.’”

While she’s happy for how it's helping her, she is also aware of its larger goal.

“[I did it] because I want to make the world a better place,” she said. And , she said, “I want to help everyone that’s going through all of this.”

In addition to the Ohio State research, the National Institutes of Health is sponsoring a study looking at deep-brain stimulation in early-onset Alzheimer’s. The current trial will include about 20 patients between the ages of 55 and 80 and involves hospitals in the US and one in Canada.

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