A handful of scientists around the world have begun cautiously experimenting with devices implanted in patients’ bodies to deliver precisely targeted electrical stimulation to the brain in hopes of treating otherwise hopeless behavioral, neurological and psychiatric disorders.
While stressing that the ethically sensitive research with “brain pacemakers” has just begun, the scientists say the results so far have been so promising that it could mark the beginning of a new era in treating often intractable cases. The approach builds on rapid recent advances in understanding how the brain works, on high-tech imaging technologies that allow surgeons to pinpoint targets with unprecedented precision, and on the miniaturization of computerized electronic devices that can safely be inserted under the skin.
“I believe we have opened up a totally new field of research,” said Alim-Louis Benabid, a neurosurgeon who pioneered the field at the University of Grenoble in France. “The number of labs which are entering the field is increasing extremely quickly. We will probably see in the next five to 10 years a number of exciting new applications.”
Brain pacemakers are already widely used to treat Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders, and now several neurological centers have begun trying them to relieve several forms of previously untreatable pain, including rare but excruciating “cluster headaches.”
Large trials are planned in Europe and the United States to control the worst cases of epilepsy. Small pilot studies have begun for patients with the most devastating, resistant forms of depression and for obsessive-compulsive disorder, a sometimes disabling psychiatric condition marked by repetitive thoughts and routines.
French researchers have begun testing on monkeys to see whether the devices might suppress appetite, and perhaps boost metabolism, in obese people. Some researchers are thinking about how they might use the technique to overcome addictions.