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January 21, 2013

Brain pacemakers will be tested to zap Alzheimer’s damage

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 under way. 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.

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