Doctors at Johns Hopkins University are experimenting with a pacemaker for the brain to combat Alzheimer's disease. They're preparing to implant one of the devices on Thursday.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins are the first to perform this surgery in the United States. It relies on the same technology as pacemakers for the heart, but instead it stimulates the brain.
Alzheimer's disease robs its victims of their memory and ability to perform the most basic tasks. Barbara Abrahams has deteriorated dramatically over the past nine years.
"Steady and slow progression downward," explained Peter Abrahams, Barbara's son. "We've tried a lot of different things, medicines, nothing really has worked."
Experimental medications have failed to cure or significantly slow the progress of the brain-damaging illness. So now doctors are looking to a new method: surgically implanting a pacemaker to stimulate the brain. The device is inserted in the chest, wires are run beneath the skin to the skull and then deep into the brain to deliver an electrical stimulation.
"What is exciting is our understanding of how memory works fits well with how this surgery might work," said Dr. Paul Rosenberg, a dementia specialist.
The same device is used commonly to battle Parkinson's disease. While doctors at Johns Hopkins are the first in the United States to perform this procedure, doctors in Canada have performed six of the pacemaker implants to stave off Alzheimer's disease. So far, findings are positive.
"What we are hoping to see is improved memory," said Dr. Rosenberg. "And that people don't decline as fast as they would without the treatment."
The pacemaker to fight Alzheimer's is still in the experimental stage. At this point, the procedure has only appeared to slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease in people who are in the very earliest stages of illness.