Innovation

This Brain ‘Pacemaker’ Stops Parkinson’s Tremors In Seconds. Now Research Suggests It Could Improve Thinking Too.

by James Gaines

November 28, 2017
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. outside the United States Supreme Court in 2012. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Just before Thanksgiving, Reverend Jesse Jackson announced to his supporters that he’d been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for about three years, joining the ranks of other public figures with the condition, like actor Michael J. Fox and boxer Muhammed Ali, who died after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s last year. The announcement from another famous face has renewed conversations around the afflication, which affects up to 10 million people worldwide. But researchers have been seeking ways to ease symptoms for years.

The symptom most people probably most immediately associate with Parkinson’s disease is the tremors and the constant shaking can make even everyday tasks much more difficult. Since the late ‘90s, one of the ways doctors have helped treat these symptoms is something called deep brain stimulation. In this procedure, doctors implant a kind of pacemaker for your brain to help control nerve signals.

It might sound a bit weird, but when you see the device in action, the results can be dramatic and undeniable. Take this video from The NeuroMedical Center in Louisiana. Within seconds, the tremors and shakes can seem to disappear.

But though tremors are the most obvious symptom, not all of the effects of Parkinson’s are physical. The condition can affect the way you think as well. In about 20-50% of patients, mild cognitive impairment can make it feel hard to multitask, organize, or problem solve. People say they end up feeling distracted, or complain of losing their train of thought mid-conversation. Some patients can even develop more severe conditions, like dementia.

Now, new research from the University of Iowa suggests those same brain pacemakers that can stop the tremors could one day be used to help treat the cognitive symptoms as well.

By the year 2030, the fraction of Parkinson's patients is going to double.

A team of neurologists and neurosurgeons have shown that there is a direct connection between the part of our brains normally targeted by deep brain stimulation and the cortex, or thinking part of our brains. What’s more, they were able to show that an electrical signal could “echo,” as it were, from one region to another. When the scientists tuned this “echo” to a specific frequency designed to mimic human brain waves in the cortex — waves that can be disrupted by Parkinson’s disease — patients did better on basic cognitive tests.

It wasn’t an incredible change, but patients said they were able to tell when the device was turned on, says Dr. Nandakumar Narayanan, one of the study’s authors. The specific measurement the team used was a timing test — a relatively simple task, but an essential building block of many cognitive skills.

This is very preliminary research, but Narayanan thinks this could one day lead to better treatments for the cognitive symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It might even be able to help treat other neurological disorders as well.

This kind of research may become increasingly important as our population grows older. Parkinson’s, like many neurological disorders, tends occur more often in older individuals. As people live longer and birth rates slow, a greater percent of our population might have to face challenges like Parkinson’s.

“By the year 2030, the fraction of Parkinson's patients is going to double,” says Narayanan. And if futurists are right and people end up living to 150 years or more, the problem may soon become even more pressing. “Our society is going to have to come up with new approaches to these problems.”

About 50,000 individuals are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease every year in the United States, with a total of about one million Americans living with the condition. Narayanan’s team’s work was published in the journal Brain

Preview image by Mark Wilson/Getty Images. Share image from Narayanan Lab, University of Iowa.

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This Brain ‘Pacemaker’ Stops Parkinson’s Tremors In Seconds. Now Research Suggests It Could Improve Thinking Too.