Almost one in seven adults over the age of 71 has some form of dementia, and an aging baby-boomer population means the number of people living with—or caring for someone with—dementia is bound to increase. But a brain implant could one day offer hope, according to a small study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia.
Brain Implants for Alzheimer’s
Previous research suggests that one of the ways Alzheimer’s alters the brain is by breaking down a specific nerve growth factor (NGF). These proteins are vital for the growth and survival of cholinergic nerve cells, which control a wide variety of neurological functions. As cholinergic nerve cells deteriorate, so too does the health of a person with Alzheimer’s.
To explore how artificial introduction of nerve growth factor might affect Alzheimer’s, researchers recruited six Alzheimer’s patients. They implanted NGF-producing capsules into the basal forebrain, offering the surrounding cholinergic nerve cells ready access to NGF.
Cholinergic nerve cells use the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to communicate, and acetylcholine produces the enzyme ChAT. Thus, the presence of this enzyme suggests that cholinergic nerve cells are functioning. Researchers developed a test for measuring the presence of ChAT in the spinal fluid of the six patients. They found that those who saw an improvement in Alzheimer’s symptoms also had an increase in ChAT in the spinal fluid. This suggests that the implants helped slow the breakdown of cholinergic nerve cells.
Researchers also found that, over time, those who received the implants had slower memory deterioration than those who did not. Though the results are promising, the study’s authors are cautious about making sweeping conclusions. Because the study group was so small, it’s not yet possible to know how the implant would affect larger numbers of people, or whether these implants would yield substantive results in a significant number of Alzheimer’s patients.
- 2014 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures[PDF]. (2014). Washington, DC: Alzheimer’s Association.
- Promising results for new Alzheimer’s therapy. (2015, February 13). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150213081521.htm
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