Pacemakers aren't just for the heart anymore. Researchers from Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center are exploring the effects of stimulating the brain with electricity to stave off memory loss.

Alzheimer's disease is a common and progressive form of dementia that occurs when brain nerve cells become damaged. It causes memory loss, behavioral changes, and difficulty with cognitive skills. While there's no way to cure this disorder, which currently affects more than 5 million Americans, researchers are hopeful the brain pacemaker could defer further changes and improve the quality of life for patients grappling with Alzheimer's symptoms, according to study researcher Ali Rezai, MD, who serves as director of both the neuroscience program and the Center for Neuromodulation at OSU.

Though the research is in its infancy, a handful of patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease have been enrolled in the FDA-approved study at Ohio State and are in the process of being tested with this new application.

How Brain Pacemakers Work

"Brain pacemakers are similar to cardiac pacemakers. They are millimeter-thin wires implanted in the brain and connected to a small device that powers the wires in the patient's chest," Rezai says. These wires send electrical signals to the brain in order to help regulate it back into a normal rhythm. This same deep brain stimulation approach (also called DBS) has been used in the past 20 years in treating about 100,000 patients with Parkinson's disease and other types of conditions, such as essential tremor, dystonia, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Exploring the Effectiveness of Brain Pacemakers

"In our study, we hope to determine whether the DBS implant can improve function, cognition, and behavior by stimulating certain areas of the brain," Rezai says.

He and his colleagues recently performed their first brain pacemaker implant on a patient, and further such surgeries are planned in the near future.

DBS Outcomes

"It's very early on in the research to discuss outcomes, but we are cautiously optimistic," Rezai says. "We want patients and families to know that there are physicians and researchers who are working hard to find treatments to improve quality of life.  Our multidisciplinary team strives to prevent, detect, treat, and cure multiple neurological conditions." The OSU team is also exploring other investigational studies using pacemaker implants to treat traumatic brain injury, obesity, and other neurological conditions.

What This Means for You

Although brain pacemakers are a long way from being approved for the general public for Alzheimer's disease, if you or a family member is affected by this condition, you can talk to your doctor about other treatment options that are currently available. There are a variety of medications, along with behavioral management interventions, that can make it easier to deal with the effects of dementia and may also help you function on a higher level while you wait for new advances.

Ali Rezai, MD, reviewed this article.



Alzheimer's Foundation of America. "About Alzheimer's." N.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

Rezai, Ali. Director, Neuroscience Program and Center for Neuromodulation, Ohio State University. Email interview. 27 Feb. 2013.

Science Daily. "First Brain Pacemaker Implanted to Treat Alzheimer's." 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2013.