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Surgeons Implant Brain ‘Pacemaker’ for Alzheimer’s Disease

Procedure performed for first time in U.S. (Dec. 5)

Surgeons at Johns Hopkins University have implanted a pacemaker-like device into the brain of a patient in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) — the first such operation in the U.S. The device, which provides deep brain stimulation and has been used in thousands of people with Parkinson’s disease, is seen as a possible means of boosting memory and reversing cognitive decline.

The surgery is part of federally funded clinical research designed to slow or halt the ravages of AD. Instead of focusing on drug treatments, many of which have failed in recent clinical trials, the research focuses on the use of low-voltage electrical charges delivered directly to the brain. There is no cure for AD.

As part of a preliminary safety study in 2010, the devices were implanted in six AD patients in Canada. Patients with mild forms of AD showed sustained increases in glucose metabolism — an indicator of neuronal activity — over a 13-month period. Most AD patients show decreases in glucose metabolism over the same period.

The first U.S. patient in the new trial underwent surgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and a second patient is scheduled for the same procedure in December. Approximately 40 patients are expected to receive the deep brain stimulation implant over the next year or so at Johns Hopkins and at four other institutions in North America.

The surgery involves drilling holes into the skull to implant wires into the fornix on either side of the brain. The fornix is a brain pathway instrumental in bringing information to the hippocampus — the portion of the brain where learning begins and memories are made, and where the earliest symptoms of AD appear to arise. The wires are attached to a pacemaker-like device, which generates tiny electrical impulses into the brain 130 times a second. The patients don’t feel the current.

Source: Johns Hopkins University; December 5, 2012.

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