A pacemaker for the brain?

An unexpected discovery on the way our brains process memory has shocked a Canadian research team and opened a new line of thinking into how to treat memory loss.

As often happens with medical advances, the “eureka” moment occurred almost by chance. Researchers at Toronto Western Hospital were testing a new technique designed to suppress the appetite in obese people.

The procedure used deep-brain stimulation (DBS), which works on the theory that by stimulating different areas of a person’s brain with electric current, you can regulate signals that control pain, depression and other maladies. During the process, the patient can’t feel anything. DBS was first approved for Canadian use in 1998 and has been used successfully to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in 40,000 patients around the world.

In this case, doctors were experimenting on a 50-year-old obese man, hoping that by stimulating the part of the brain that controls appetite, they could regulate the man’s caloric intake. Electrodes were implanted into the patient’s skull with cables leading to a battery pack that was sewn into the skin near his waist. A low-level current then flowed to the electrodes in the brain.

During DBS, the patient began telling doctors that his memory of a long-ago event had suddenly been triggered. “He reported the experience of being in a park with his friends from when he was around 20-years-old and, as the intensity of the stimulation increased, the details became more vivid,” Professor Andres Lozano, a researcher at Toronto Western Hospital, recounted to the UK Independent.

When the current was turned off, the man’s memory of the event faded. “We want to assess if we can reach the memory circuits and drive improvement. It is a novel approach to dealing with this problem.”

Dr. Lozano, a leading expert on brain stimulation, hopes it opens doors for those who have memory loss. “It gives us insight into which brain structures are involved in memory,” he told the Independent. “It gives us a means of intervening in the way we have already done in Parkinson’s and for mood disorders such as depression, and it may have therapeutic benefit in people with memory problems.”

What does this mean for those who suffer memory loss? One suggestion is that if brain stimulation proves effective, down the road the technology could work much the same way a pacemaker works on the heart. Just as a pacemaker works by sending impulses to the heart to maintain a suitable heart rate and rhythm, a similar device could send impulses to the brain, stimulating memory.

It’s far too early to tell whether how this finding will play out. Researchers caution that the experiment has only been successful on one person and that a great deal more testing needs to be done.

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