Benefits of Deep Brain Stimulation for Alzheimer's

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerJune 22, 2016

Deep brain stimulation is a neurosurgical procedure that has been shown to be an effective form of treatment for several disorders, including Parkinson’s disease. A recent study found that deep brain stimulation may also be helpful when it comes to treating Alzheimer’s disease and related forms of dementia.

Learn more about the treatment method and the groundbreaking new study on brain stimulation.

Deep Brain Stimulation: An Overview

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a neurosurgical procedure where electrodes are implanted in certain parts of the brain. These electrodes send electrical impulses to specific parts of the brain to change brain activity. The impulses can regulate abnormal impulses or affect certain cells and chemicals in the brain.

Controlled by a pacemaker-like device under the skin, DBS has been beneficial for a number of disorders including chronic pain, major depression, essential tremor,  obsessive-compulsive disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

It is important to note that there are potential serious neuropsychiatric side-effects from deep brain stimulation, which range from apathy to compulsive gambling to hyper-sexuality. These side effects are usually temporary and potentially reversible. Electrodes may also become displaced during surgery causing personality changes, but this can also be fixed and identified through a CT scan.

How Deep Brain Stimulation Creates New Brain Cells

The latest study to look at the effects of DBS on dementia found that it may be a therapeutic target for dementia and related disorders.

The study, conducted at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, implanted DBS electrodes in rats. The electrodes were programmed to target the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain responsible for a higher level of cognitive function. Researchers noticed a significant improvement in the ability of the rats to perform memory tasks after constant stimulation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. They also saw new neurons being formed in the brain, compared to the control group.

This groundbreaking result means that new brain cells can be created through DPS, which can improve memory retention. The increase in neurons may also reduce anxiety and depression, commonly felt by people living with varying forms of dementia.

Ajai Vyas, Assistant Professor at NTU’s School of Biological Sciences said:

“The findings from the research clearly show the potential of enhancing the growth of brain cells using deep brain stimulation. Around 60% of patients do not respond to regular anti-depressant treatments and our research opens new doors for more effective treatment options.”

Dr Lim Lee Wei, associate professor at Sunway University Mayalsia and researcher added to the enthusiasm of his colleague stating:

“Memory loss in older people is not only a serious and widespread problem, but signifies a key symptom of dementia. At least one in 10 people aged 60 and above in Singapore suffer from dementia and this breakthrough could pave the way towards improved treatments for patients.”

Potential to Restore Memory Using Deep Brain Stimulation

As the war against Alzheimer’s and dementia rages, some researchers are continuing to focus on the effects of deep brain stimulation on brain health. Dr. Andres Lozano is one researcher who is studying the surprising positive effects of DBS on memory. In 2008, Lozano and a team of researchers accidentally found that deep brain stimulation of the hypothalamus increased memory. The researchers were using DBS to treat an obese patient. By targeting the hypothalamus, a small but important part of the brain that helps to regulate appetite and sleep, researchers were hoping to suppress hunger but found that the patient had increased memory and as voltages increased, so did memory.

Looking further into the reason behind increased memory, Lozano’s team of researchers found that by stimulating the hypothalamus, they were also increasing brain activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain primarily responsible for memory. Lozano and his team have since began two studies with encouraging but inconclusive outcomes. While final results are yet to be published, the researchers are encouraged that there does not appear to be any long-term health effects by participants who have had regular DBS. However, after one year, there has been no significant difference in cognition between people who have had DBS and people who have not.

While some studies show more support for DBS to recover memories lost due to the disease, other researchers remain skeptical. Dr. Nadar Pouratian is a neurosurgeon and DBS researcher at University of California Los Angeles, and cautions people about the potential of DBS stating:

“The recent deep brain stimulation trial for Alzheimer’s clearly demonstrates the safety of this approach for trying to treat the progression of disease. Unfortunately, [the findings] suggest that the therapy may not be as robust as initially proposed.”

Yet, many researchers remain hopeful that DBS holds the key to memory restoration while acknowledging studies surrounding DBS and dementia are in their infancy and call for more studies to delve deeper into the effects of DBS on memory.

Did you know that deep brain stimulation could be used to treat dementia? What are your thoughts on it as a treatment for memory loss? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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