It continues to blow my mind how many physical trials are going on out in the world dealing with electricity and the brain despite just how little we know about how the thing works. We’ve got some general ideas about some general areas that probably control general behaviors, but when it comes to specificity, forget it. Most of what happens is a complex tapestry of neurons firing in many separate regions of the brain. And despite ambitious projects recently launching to map every single neural connection in a human brain, we’ve barely even gotten started on a fruit fly’s.
Take depression, for example. We’re not above cutting people’s heads open and sticking electrodes in there in order to stimulate the pathways and neurons we believe to be crucial to feeling “normal.” Deep brain stimulation is a fairly common practice, and though it has shown some potential results, we don’t really have a clear understanding why.
This all brings me to today’s topic, implanting a pacemaker into a person’s brain in order to treat Parkinson’s disease. True, there has been some progress in the area of understanding the physical underlining of the loss of motor control. Not too long ago researchers described a hyperdirect pathway between the cortex and subthalamic nucleus that appears to be a root cause of the loss of motor control in Parkinson’s. Subsequently, deep brain stimulation of the area has shown to cause improvements in rapidly deteriorating patients.
The next logical step, then, is for researchers to implant an electrical device that can help stimulate the neurons on a 24/7 basis. This is exactly what’s been done at the Ohio State University.
There aren’t any results or any papers yet, but the school recently announced the first trial of implanting a pacemaker in the brain for these reasons. However, they are reporting positive indications of results from the first patient.
I’m quick to disbelieve these techniques given how little we know about the brain, but then again, when you’re rapidly losing control of your body, any promising trial probably looks pretty good.
“This study seemed to just give us hope,” said Joe Jester, the father of the first patient, Kathy Sanford. “I guess we were at the place where you just don’t do anything and watch the condition deteriorate over the years, or try to do something that would give us hope and might stop the progression of this disease.”
The doctors and researchers giving her the chance include Dr. Douglas Scharre, neurologist and director of the division of cognitive neurology, and Dr. Ali Rezai, neurosurgeon and director of the neuroscience program.
Will it all work out? We’ll have to wait for up to nine other patients to undergo the five-hour procedure, and then at least two more years for the study to be completed.