A trial in Germany has investigated the use of deep brain stimulation as a potential treatment approach for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. The study is published on Tuesday 6 May in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
The 12-month trial, led by researchers at the University of Cologne, recruited six people with mild to moderate stage Alzheimer’s disease, all of whom were already prescribed medication to help with the symptoms of the disease. The trial aimed to test the safety and effectiveness of deep brain stimulation – a treatment that involves implanting electrodes into specific areas of the brain and sending small electrical impulses to stimulate the brain.
For the first month of the trial, half of the group were given deep brain stimulation for two weeks and no stimulation for two weeks, while the other half had the reverse – no stimulation for two weeks, followed by two weeks of treatment. For the remaining 11 months, all the participants had continuous deep brain stimulation, with the focus on an area of the brain that is known to be rich in a brain chemical called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plays an important role in helping the brain to send signals between nerve cells, and existing drugs for Alzheimer’s work by boosting the amounts of this chemical, helping to reduce the symptoms of the disease.
The participants were given a series of tests of thinking and memory skills at the start of the study and at regular intervals for the next year. The results showed that four of the group maintained or improved their scores on these tests over the course of the year, while two of the participants’ saw their thinking and memory decline. The small number of people involved means it is not possible to know whether the treatment could benefit people with the disease, but no severe side-effects were reported during the trial.
The researchers conclude that deep brain stimulation is safe to use in people with Alzheimer’s, and suggest that further research is needed to fully test the effects of this technique.
Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“While this study explores an interesting concept, one drawback of the research is the lack of a control group to compare the results against. This very small trial suggests that deep brain stimulation is safe for people with Alzheimer’s, but it’s not possible to draw conclusions about the effects of the treatment from these findings. Some drugs already exist to boost the brain chemical that is the focus of this study, but these are unable to halt the progression of Alzheimer’s, and it’s likely that the same would be true of deep brain stimulation. It should also be noted that deep brain stimulation is an invasive procedure that may not be appropriate for everyone.
“Existing drugs for Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, can help with some of the symptoms of the disease, but we urgently need an effective treatment that could stop the disease in its tracks. Continued investment in research is key if we are to find new treatments that are so desperately needed.”