By Lauran Neergaard
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- It has the makings of a science fiction movie: Zap someone's 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 tiny wires can be implanted into just the right spot.
A dramatic shift is beginning in the disappointing struggle to find something to slow the damage of this epidemic: The first U.S. experiments with "brain pacemakers" for Alzheimer's are getting underway. 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 be implanted in a handful of hospitals. No one knows if it might work, and if it does, how long the effects might last.
Kathy Sanford was among the first to sign up. 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.
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 for longer, essentially bypassing some of dementia's damage.
Sanford decided it was worth a shot.
"The reason I'm doing it is, it's really hard to not be able, sometimes, to remember," Sanford, 57, said from her Lancaster, Ohio, home.
Her father is blunter.
"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.
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 the tiny shocks up her neck and into her brain.
It's too soon to know how she'll fare; scientists will track her for two years.
"This is an ongoing evaluation right now that we are optimistic about," is how Ohio State neurosurgeon Dr. Ali Rezai cautiously puts it.
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's or similar dementias, and that number is expected to rise rapidly as the baby boomers age. Today's drugs only temporarily help some symptoms. Attempts to attack Alzheimer's presumed cause, a brain-clogging gunk, so far haven't panned out.
"We're getting tired of not having other things work," said Ohio State neurologist Dr. Douglas Scharre.
The new approach is called deep brain stimulation, or DBS. While it won't attack Alzheimer's root cause either, "maybe we can make the brain work better," he said.