Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of degenerative dementia, afflicting about 5.5 million Americans and costing more than $100 billion per year. In terms of U.S. health care expenditure it now ranks as the third costliest disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is not easily managed. It becomes progressively disabling with loss of memory, cognition, worsening behavioral function and a gradual loss of independent functioning. Currently there is no cure.
But this may be all about to change. Last October, during a five-hour surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Kathy Sanford became the first Alzheimer’s patient in the United States to have a pacemaker implanted in her brain.
Could this be the dramatic shift in the disappointing struggle to find something to slow the damage of this epidemic? As yet, no one knows if it might work, and if it does, how long the effects might last. Research is still in its infancy.
Sanford is the first of up to 10 patients who will be enrolled in the FDA-approved study to determine if using a brain pacemaker can improve cognitive and behavioral functioning in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
First, holes are drilled into the patient’s skull so tiny pacemaker wires can be implanted into just the right spot. A battery-powered generator near her collarbone then sends tiny shocks up her neck and into her brain.
It is hoped that zapping the brain with mild jolts of electricity will make the brain work better and stave off the cognitive, behavioral and functional effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
“If the early findings that we’re seeing continue to be robust and progressive, then I think that will be very promising and encouraging for us,” says Ali Rezai MD, “But so far we are cautiously optimistic.”
Kathy Sanford says she volunteered for the study to help others avoid the angst she has suffered as Alzheimer’s slowly disrupted her life. The Ohio woman’s early stage Alzheimer’s was gradually getting worse. She still lived independently, posting reminders to herself, but no longer could work. The usual medicines weren’t helping.
Her father is proud that his daughter is participating in the study. “What’s our choice? To participate in a program or sit here and watch her slowly deteriorate?” asked Joe Jester, 78. He drives his daughter to follow-up testing, hoping to spot improvement.
She was cheered to see her test scores climb a bit during those adjustments. While she knows there are no guarantees, she says “if we can beat some of this stuff, or at least get a leading edge on it, I’m in for the whole deal.”
Her optimism and hope is shared by her neurologist. “We’re getting tired of not having other things work” said Douglas Scharre MD. Alzheimer’s doesn’t just steal memories. It eventually robs sufferers of the ability to do the simplest of tasks.
Here’s hoping these brain pacemakers can reconnect some of the circuits and diminish such losses.