Deep brain stimulation breakthrough offers hope to Alzheimer’s patients

ITV News Health and Science Correspondent Martin Stew speaks to some of the pioneers scientists behind the new potential treatment

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. Scientists are working hard on drug treatments but so far there is no cure.

Now neuroscientists from the UK Dementia Research Institute have taken a major step forward in developing a treatment to stimulate the brain using electricity not drugs.

Alzheimer's is complex but one of the impacts it has is to affect the communication between neurons in the hippocampus, which is part of the brain pivotal to memory and learning.

As the hippocampus is embedded deep into the temporal lobe, treating it with electricity would traditionally require surgically implanting probes inside the brain. This new technique called temporal interference uses electrodes attached to the outside of the scalp to create two inert electrical fields.

Where the fields overlap at a chosen spot in the brain, an active field is created to stop neurones becoming overstimulated.

“Where those two currents meet, they'll generate an interference pattern,” Dr Ines Violante from the University of Surrey explained to me. “It's that interference pattern that will allow us to target the region deep in the brain without surgery and to shape its activity.”

Electric currents through the brain may sound barbaric but according to Dr Nir Grossman from Imperial College London, they are one thousand times less powerful than electroconvulsive therapy - that’s where mental health patients are anesthetised before being shocked to trigger a seizure.

The treatment stimulates the brain by sending electric currents through it. Credit: ITV News

“The strength of the stimulation is no different than if you were to hold a nine volt battery between your fingers. It is safe. Most of the participants will not even feel anything,” he added.

Tests on healthy brains found memory was boosted. MRI scans have shown temporal interference was safe and able to target the hippocampus. The question now is if the theoretical help for Alzheimer's patients works in reality.

An early pilot test is already underway; Patients like 86-year-old Kenneth Bromwich are asked to complete a series of memory tests whilst specifically placed electrodes send currents through his brain.

At the moment it’s being done in a lab but in the future it’s hoped he will be able to wear the kit at home, fitted into a specially made hat.

Work is at a very early stage. It has been proven to be safe but more research, testing and development of wearable tech is needed - that is likely to take years.

Neuroscientist Christopher Butler from Imperial believes it has the potential to add to the tool kit of treatments for people like Kenneth.

“In the future we’re unlikely to have a single treatment that is going to cure Alzheimer's disease. I suspect there's always gonna be lots of different approaches needed for one individual," he said.

"So I think probably this type of new neuromodulatory stimulation of the brain will go alongside some of these new drugs that are coming onto the market."

It’s too soon for results - but for Kenneth - not too late to dream.

“I feel exhilarated that the possibilities are boundless.” he told me. “That's how I feel. So you think there's hope? Definitely, terrific hope.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...