Could deep brain stimulation be the answer for those suffering from alzheimer's?
Discovery could make Alzheimer's a memory
By Laura Clout
Scientists have accidentally discovered a key to unlocking memory, which could offer hope to thousands of Alzheimer's sufferers.
Surgeons made the discovery when using a technique called deep-brain stimulation, which involves stimulating parts of the brain with an electric current, while trying to suppress an obese man's appetite.
But to their surprise, the patient was suddenly able to recall in immense detail a moment spent in a park with friends 30 years before. His ability to learn also improved significantly after the electrodes were turned on.
Scientists are now trialling the treatment in Alzheimer's sufferers and say initial results from three patients are promising. The technique, which is already used to treat Parkinson's patients, could provide a "pacemaker" in the brains of those with the degenerative condition, they say.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and affects around 417,000 people in Britain.
Andres Lozano, a professor of neurosurgery at the Toronto Western Hospital, Ontario, who is leading the research, said the discovery caught him and his team completely by surprise.
He told The Independent: "This is the first time that anyone has had electrodes implanted in the brain which have been shown to improve memory.
"We are driving the activity of the brain by increasing its sensitivity - turning up the volume of the memory circuits. Any event that involves the memory circuits is more likely to be stored and retained."
Professor Lozano said the obese man, who weighed 190kg (30st), had turned to brain surgery as a last resort to control his eating.
It was while researchers were trying to identify the parts of his brain responsible for hunger, in the hope of curbing his appetite, that the man began to experience an intense experience of deja vu.
As a current was passed into his hypothalamus - a part of the brain just above the brain stem, the man began a describing a scene from a park years earlier, in which he recognised his girlfriend at the time and remembered what his friends were wearing.
The unidentified man was also tested on his ability to learn lists of paired objects. After three weeks of regular brain stimulation, his performance dramatically improved, most of all when the electrodes were turned on.
Prof Lozano said: "It gives us a means of intervening in the way we have already done in Parkinson's and for mood disorders such as depression, and it may have a therapeutic benefit in people with memory problems."
The technique involves surgically implanting electrodes into particular parts of the brain. These are attached to a battery pack stitched under the skin of the chest which delivers a constant current to stimulate the brain at a level which is imperceptible to the patient.