Douglas Scharre examining brain scans of participants. Photo: Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are taking a slightly different approach to combat the progression of Alzheimer’s by stimulating the frontal lobe region of the brain with a “brain pacemaker.”

Many treatments for Alzheimer’s tend to focus on ways to improve memory in patients, but Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the Division of Cognitive Neurology at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center’s Neurological Institute, aims to slow other symptoms of the disease – such as problem solving and decision-making.

He conducted a pilot study involving three patients with mild or early stage Alzheimer’s. A deep brain stimulation (DBS) implant was put into each of the patients. The implant is similar to a cardiac pacemaker device, but the pacemaker wires are implanted in specific regions of the brain rather than the heart, according to a university release on the study. The wires are surgically implanted in the ventral striatum region of the brain, which is associated with cognition and behavioral and functional abilities.

Although DBS has been used as a treatment for Parkinson’s and depression, this study marks the first time the technique has been used to specifically target Alzheimer’s symptoms related to executive function.

After two years with the implant, the study showed that deep brain stimulation targeting the frontal brain regions reduced overall performance decline in the three patients when compared to approximately 100 Alzheimer’s patients in similar stages of the disease who did not receive the implant.

Participants periodically completed a test that measured aspects of cognitive function commonly affected by Alzheimer’s. Two of the three patients with the implants showed significantly less decline in their scores compared to the non-implant group – demonstrating that the implant may be effective at slowing the progression of these symptoms.

One participant in the study, 85-year-old LaVonne Moore, of Delaware, Ohio said she struggled to maintain her independence when picking out clothes or cooking her own meals. But now she can select her own outfits, and initiate preps of a simple meal, assemble ingredients and cook on her own, the researchers report. She also successfully organized a social outing, arranged transportation to the event, and could plan according to the weather. Her disease has progressed, but slower than her 89-year-old husband expected.

“We have many memory aides, tools and pharmaceutical treatments to help Alzheimer’s patients with memory, but we don’t have anything to help with improving their judgments, making good decisions, or increasing their ability to selectively focus attention on the task at hand and avoid distractions. These skills are necessary in performing daily tasks such as making the bed, choosing what to eat and having meaningful socializing with friends and family,” said Scharre, who collaborated with Dr. Ali Rezai, a neurosurgeon who specializes in neuromodulation and now leads the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at West Virginia University.

The next step for the researchers is to investigate non-surgical ways to stimulate the frontal lobe, which would offer a less invasive treatment option to slow symptoms. The DBS treatment could become one piece of a larger, more complex puzzle that would help treat the various aspects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Results of the pilot study are published online in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.