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'Brain pacemaker' experiments target Alzheimer's

WASHINGTON -- It has the makings of a science fiction movie: Zap the brain with mild jolts of electricity to try to stave off the creeping memory loss of Alzheimer's disease.

And it's not easy. Holes are drilled into the patient's skull so that tiny wires can be implanted in just the right spot.

A dramatic shift is beginning in the struggle to find something to slow the damage of the epidemic: The first U.S. experiments with "brain pacemakers" for Alzheimer's are getting under way. Scientists are looking beyond drugs to implants in the hunt for much-needed new treatments.

The research is in its infancy. Only a few dozen people with early-stage Alzheimer's will get the implants in a handful of hospitals. No one knows whether it might work or, if it does, how long the effects might last.

Kathy Sanford, 57, was among the first to sign up. Her early-stage Alzheimer's was gradually getting worse. She still lived independently in Lancaster, Ohio, posting reminders to herself, but she no longer could work. The usual medicines weren't helping.

Then doctors at Ohio State University explained the hope that constant electrical stimulation of brain circuits involved in memory and thinking might keep those neural networks active longer, essentially bypassing some of dementia's damage.

"The reason I'm doing it is, it's really hard to not be able, sometimes, to remember," Sanford said.

A few months after the five-hour operation, the hair shaved for her brain surgery was growing back and Sanford said she felt good, with an occasional tingling that she attributes to the electrodes. A battery-powered generator near her collarbone powers them, sending tiny shocks up her neck and into her brain. Scientists will track her for two years.

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's or similar dementias, and the number is expected to rise rapidly as baby boomers age. Today's drugs temporarily help some symptoms. Attempts to attack the presumed Alzheimer's cause, a brain-clogging gunk, haven't panned out so far.

The new approach is called deep brain stimulation, or DBS. While it won't attack the root cause, "maybe we can make the brain work better," said Ohio State neurologist Dr. Douglas Scharre.

Implanting electrodes into the brain isn't new.

From 85,000 to 100,000 people around the world have had DBS to block the tremors of Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders. The continuous jolts quiet overactive nerve cells, with few side effects. Scientists also are testing whether stimulating other parts of the brain might help lift depression or curb appetite among the obese.

The evidence is preliminary and will take years of study to prove, but "this is an exciting novel approach," said Dr. Laurie Ryan of the National Institutes of Health's aging division, which is funding a follow-up study.