A pacemaker for the brain can reduce the mental decline of Alzheimer’s sufferers, scientists said.
In a study that could give hope to thousands of patients, the device appeared to counteract distressing changes to the brain that make decision-making and problem-solving more difficult.
Pacemakers, which emit electrical impulses to stimulate tissue, are used to regulate heart function, and a similar device attached to the brain can control the tremors of patients with Parkinson’s disease.
But this is the first time it has been tested on those with Alzheimer’s.
Most research into the disease has focused on memory loss, but a US team wanted to tackle the practical problems of everyday living caused by the condition.
The academics said LaVonne Moore, 85, who was no longer able to cook when she was referred for the treatment, was able to assemble ingredients and prepare a meal after two years with the pacemaker.
Mrs Moore, from Delaware, Ohio, can also select what to wear each day, organise outings, plan for the weather and handle money.
She received her implant in 2013 and began improvements after two years. Her 89-year-old husband, Tom Moore, said that although her Alzheimer’s disease had continued to progress, he believed the decline had been slowed.
He added: ‘LaVonne has had Alzheimer’s disease longer than anybody I know. That sounds negative, but it’s really a positive thing because it shows we’re doing something right.’
But British experts urged caution, pointing out that only three people were used in the tests on the procedure, called deep brain stimulation.
Dr Douglas Scharre, co-author of the study, said: ‘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.
‘These skills are necessary in performing daily tasks such as making the bed, choosing what to eat and meaningful socialising with friends and family.’
His team, from the Neurological Institute at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Centre, drilled holes in patients’ skulls to implant thin wires in their brains. These were attached to a battery inserted in a patient’s chest. The device targets the frontal lobes – the brain region that controls decisions and planning.
Its electrical pulses recalibrate brain circuits by stimulating brain cells that have not been killed off by dementia.
Dr Scharre, whose trial is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, said: ‘The frontal lobes are responsible for our abilities to solve problems, organize, plan and utilise good judgments. By stimulating this region, Alzheimer’s subjects’ cognitive and daily functional abilities as a whole declined more slowly than Alzheimer’s patients in a comparison group not being treated.’
However Robert Howard, professor of old-age psychiatry at University College London, said the results may be due to the placebo effect, adding: ‘This study has not shown that deep brain stimulation can slow or improve cognitive and functional decline in Alzheimer’s.’
Dr Carol Routledge, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘This small trial is useful in demonstrating that this invasive treatment is safe and has no serious side-effects, but the observed benefits in two of the patients must be treated with caution.’