Posted: Jan 25, 2013 1:58 PM by AP, posted by Kirsten Bennett
It has the makings of a science fiction movie: Zap someone's brain with mild jolts of electricity to try to stave off the creeping memory loss of Alzheimer's disease.
But it's real life for 57-year-old Kathy Sanford, who has early-stage Alzheimer's that is gradually getting worse.
Her father noticed changes.
"There just seemed to be little memory things that would pop up. You know, where did I put something? I've lost this," said Joe Jester from his daughter's home in Lancaster, Ohio.
Sanford was desperate to try and help others from feeling the anxiety she does knowing the disease could one day rob her of her memories, independence and ability to think.
She volunteered for a clinical trial at Ohio State University to implant a pacemaker in her brain that would send constant, tiny shocks to a part of it affected by Alzheimer's.
"I said, 'Yeah. I'll do it," said Sanford, eager to do something to try and combat her condition.
Surgeons implanted the device, which is very similar to those used to treat heart problems, back in October, and a team of researchers has been monitoring her since.
"It's believed that because of the plaques that are causing the Alzheimer's, the brain networks or connections are slowed down or gummed up," said Dr. Ali Rezai, the director of neurosciences programs at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. "Our hope is that we can increase the activity of the brain and bypass this block in the brain."
Rezai theorizes that by essentially waking up areas of the brain slowed down by Alzheimer's and increasing brain activity in general, patients might experience improved memory, attention and cognition.
The treatment might slow the progression of the disease.
Sanford was the first of ten patients approved to have the implant in this study. The patients will be tracked for two years.
Rezai says the trial marks a new front in the battle against Alzheimer's. Years of research and development of drugs have so far proved disappointing.
Today's medications can only temporarily help symptoms, and researchers are hunting for new options.
"Unfortunately medications have not proven to be very significant," said Rezai. "There is no definitive help for Alzheimer's."
The "brain pacemaker" is not new to the medical world. The overall approach is called deep brain stimulation, or DBS.
DBS with a pacemaker is standard treatment to calm the tremors of Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders.
Rezai says it's been tested to help depression, obesity and other disorders that might have a neurological component.
Ohio State is one a few U.S. institutions just starting clinical trials to test DBS on Alzheimer's.
Periodically Sanford goes into a lab for checkups and testing.
Researchers have her do problem-solving, memory and skills tests while they adjust the frequency and intensity of the electrical shocks.
Preliminary results have been heartening for Sanford and the scientists.
"Puts a smile to the face of the entire team when we see her speed and accuracies improving and she's able to problem solve better," said Rezai.
The doctor says he is cautiously optimistic at this point. The research is still in its infancy.
If he sees similar improvements over a longer period of time and in more patients, Rezai says DBS might be a viable Alzheimer's treatment.
"I'm just trying to make the world a better place," said Sanford, who says she only occasionally feels a little tingling from the electrodes.
A battery-powered generator near her collarbone powers them.
She knows there are no guarantees when trying to tackle this disease.