Diseases that rob our brains of the ability to form new memories — or retrieve old ones — are painful and disturbing for the afflicted as well as their families.
In deep brain stimulation, a battery-operated neurostimulator is surgically implanted in the brain, where it delivers electrical stimulation to targeted areas. The treatment has long been used in Parkinson's disease patients to deliver electrical stimulation to limit tremors, rigidity and walking problems. The subjects of the UCLA study were epilepsy patients. Electrodes had been previously placed in each patient's hippocampus or entorhinal cortex to determine the location of their seizures. Fried's team activated those electrodes while the patients played a virtual taxicab game which asked them to learn and navigate the streets of a city and to find the best routes from one point to another.
The study offers us intriguing clues into the ways we can affect the brain’s memory mechanisms. But the big question is whether the results can be reproduced for people with Alzheimer's or other brain disorders affecting memory. Patients and families are hopeful, but Dr. William H. Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association, urges caution. "The population in the study was very different," being epileptic patients and not Alzheimer's sufferers, he said. Alzheimer’s disease is marked by the accumulation of amyloid-beta clumps, tangles of the protein tau, and the death of brain cells.
Any of these factors could affect whether deep brain stimulation would improve memory function in Alzheimer’s patients. Thies also has practical concerns. "Doing surgery on the 5.4 million people with Alzheimer’s disease is not something you’re going to put at the top of your list.”
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