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Brain ‘pacemaker’ for Alzheimer’s helps give life back to patients

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A brain ‘pacemaker’ for Alzheimer’s disease is helping patients to dress themselves, cook and keep up hobbies which they feared losing forever.

In a medical first, surgeons in the US implanted electrical wires into the frontal lobes of three people to stimulate their brain cells in the same way that a pacemaker regulates electrical activity in the heart.

All three study participants showed improvement, including LaVonne Moore, 85, of Delaware, Ohio, who was unable to cook meals or dress herself without help before the implant.

Now two years on, Mrs Moore is able to prepare meals, plan outings and select her own clothing without assistance.  She can even continue to play hymns on the piano, an ability that she feared would be lost by now.

Her husband Tom Moore, 89, said: “LaVonne has had Alzheimer’s disease probably longer than anybody I know, and that sounds negative, but it’s really a positive thing because it shows that we’re doing something right. We will be together as long as possible.”

Mrs Moore added: “I will do anything to help others not go through what I’m going through.”

The implants were placed in the part of the brain responsible for executive and cognitive functions such as planning, problem solving and judgement. A battery pack in the chest sends electrical currents through the wires in a process called deep brain stimulation.

Around 850,000 people are suffering from dementia in Britain and there are currently no treatments. Trials of new drugs have been beset with failures and earlier this month, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company Pfizer said it was abandoning the hunt for a cure.

“We have many memory aides, tools and pharmaceutical treatments to help Alzheimer’s patients with memory, but we don’t have anything to help with improving their judgments, making good decisions, or increasing their ability to selectively focus attention on the task at hand and avoid distractions,” said Dr. Douglas Scharre, Division of Cognitive Neurology at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center’s Neurological Institute.

“These skills are necessary in performing daily tasks such as making the bed, choosing what to eat and having meaningful socializing with friends and family.

“The frontal lobes are responsible for our abilities to solve problems, organize and plan, and utilize good judgments. By stimulating this region of the brain, the Alzheimer’s subjects cognitive and daily functional abilities as a whole declined more slowly than Alzheimer’s patients in a matched comparison group not being treated with deep brain stimulation.”

Next, Ohio State researchers want to explore non-surgical methods to stimulate the frontal lobe, which would be a less invasive treatment option to slow down the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

“It is crucial to explore new options to help improve function, daily care and quality of life for these patients.”

Charities said the new study was encouraging and called for further research.

Dr Doug Brown, Chief Policy and Research Officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said:“Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a well-established treatment which can reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and it has previously been tested in similar way for Alzheimer’s disease, with varying results.

“Given that we haven’t had any new treatments for dementia in over a decade it’s encouraging to see techniques from other diseases being tested for dementia, but it will need further, more in depth research before we can draw any firm conclusions.”

Dr Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Previous research with deep brain stimulation in Alzheimer’s has shown mixed results, but studies have not focused on brain regions responsible for decision making and problem solving before.

“While memory is a key problem in Alzheimer’s, changes in thinking skills have an equally devastating impact so it’s important that treatment approaches address these symptoms too.

The research is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.