Electric brain ‘pacemaker’ could treat dementia

A “BRAIN pacemaker” could be used as a treatment for dementia by improving memory in sufferers, research suggests.

Dr Lee Wei Lim, left, and Ajai Vyas presented research and highlighted it could be used on humans. Picture: NTU Singapore

Scientists have found deep brain stimulation (DBS) – a technique used to treat some cases of Parkinson’s disease – can help enhance the growth of brain cells at the front part of the brain, which improves short- and long-term memory.

During the experiments, conducted on rats, an implant fitted with electrodes was inserted into the brain through holes drilled in the skull to send electrical impulses to the brain.

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Dementia – which affects more than 90,000 Scots – is a syndrome associated with the decline of the brain, with symptoms often including memory loss, problems with language and issues with controlling emotional responses.

Researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found that middle-aged rats performed better in memory tests just 24 hours after the stimulation.

Assistant Professor Ajai Vyas, who worked on the project reported in journal eLife, said: “Extensive studies have shown that rats’ brains and memory systems are very similar to humans.

“The electrodes are harmless to the rats, as they go on to live normally and fulfil their regular adult lifespan of around 22 months.

“The findings from the research clearly show the potential of enhancing the growth of brain cells using deep brain stimulation. Around 60 per cent of patients do not respond to regular anti-depressant treatments and our research opens new doors for more effective treatment options.”

The news was welcomed by dementia charity Alzheimer Scotland, which said the illness was a serious public health issue.

A spokesman said: “This research is still in its very early stages and we will be keen to see if it progresses to human trials.

“Dementia is a huge public health issue in Scotland and almost every family has had some experience of the illness.

“It is absolutely vital that we develop a better understanding of the causes so that we can work towards a means of prevention or perhaps even a cure.”

But Professor June Andrews, director of the Dementia Services Development Centre at ­Stirling University, warned there were limitations to the study as it had not been tested on ­humans.

She said: “There is evidence that brain cells are damaged in dementia but the rats did not have dementia so it is impossible to tell if there would be improvement in humans with dementia symptoms from this research.

“It will be some time before any agreement could be reached to do this sort of research on humans with dementia.”

Prof Andrews also raised concerns over the ethics of neurotechnologies such as DBS, the subject of a previous Nuffield Council of Bioethics ­consultation.