A procedure that that is already being used for the treatment of some brain diseases is receiving increased attention as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Called deep brain stimulation (DBS), an implanted neurostimulator delivers electrical signals that help regulate abnormal signals in the brain caused by the disease.
In the U.S., DBS is currently only approved for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor. But the potential for its use is expanding, with more researchers looking into the procedure for epilepsy, depression, bipolar disorder, and now, Alzheimer’s disease.
In a report that was publicized last year, a Canadian man who was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's underwent the procedure about four years ago. The electrodes had been sending more than 100 impulses per second to the memory center in his brain. Four years after the device was implanted, the man's brain scans showed that the areas in his brain where activity had been dying out before the stimulation were now lighting up with activity.
The stimulation seemed to be keeping the cognitive decline that is the hallmark of Alzheimer’s, at bay.
Recently, a report was released in the Journal of Neurosurgery on a Phase 2 U.S. study for the use of DBS for Alzheimer’s. Neurosurgeons at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix found that the procedure was safe for Alzheimer's patients.
Quoted on Medical News Today, Francisco Ponce, MD, Director of the Barrow Center for Neuromodulation* said:
"Previous pilot studies researching the use of DBS in Alzheimer's have indicated the potential to slow cognitive decline in some patients, and have even shown metabolic changes in the brain that may slow the progression of the disease."
Also noted in the article is that DBS is now being studied in six hospitals across the U.S. Dr. Ponce indicates that “the next step is evaluating the efficacy and longer-term safety of the treatment, which will not be known until the last patient completes the two-year evaluation later this year.”
Ever since I read about the Canadian study showing improvement four years after DBS was begun, I have been hoping that the U.S. would quickly move forward with these studies. DBS could prove to be one method of intervening with the progressive destruction of Alzheimer’s disease that could be brought to market in a timely manner.
Learning the future of Alzheimer’s medication
There are currently well over a dozen drugs under clinical studies on various Alzheimer's drugs. Most aggressively, is research for the anti-amyloid investigational drug, solanezumab. Researchers hope this medication can slow memory and cognitive decline in older individuals who do not yet show symptoms of cognitive impairment or dementia.
However, the availability of this drug, which must be started very early in the course of the disease, is still years off.
We can hope that solanezumab will prove to help enough people to consider the drug a significant step forward in preventing the disease or at least stopping the symptoms in early stages. However, it will likely be at least five years before solanezumab, or any other drug now being researched, is available.
Additionally, we’ve followed a significant number of clinical trials using what seemed like promising drugs only to see them fail in later trials. That is the nature of research. We learn from each stage.
Meanwhile, people already experiencing the effects of Alzheimer’s disease are left with little to do but try to stay healthy and plan for a time when their brain betrays them to a level most of us can’t imagine. Treatments that can be used later in the disease and may halt or even reverse some symptoms are the dream of these people and their families.
I'm hoping that clinical trials using DBS continue, and if they prove successful, the treatment will be expedited so that more people will have the opportunity to try this method sooner rather than later.
*Barrow Neurological Institute is part of Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix.