Though it sounds like complete science fiction, there is nothing new about implanting devices in the brain to manipulate electrical currents therein. But, until now, there has always been a gaping problem with regards to brain implants: they would dose the brain with electrical currents, yes, but do so with a pre-conceived intensity/schedule. They worked by delivering electric shocks to the brain, mini shock treatments on a set schedule.
Minneapolis-based medical company Medtronic has created an implant that not only manipulates the electrical current of the brain but also monitors it.
So why fiddle with currents in the first place? Thus far, it’s been used to treat Parkinson’s disease-based movement disorders and is being explored for treatment of depression, epilepsy and the like.
But in the past, we’ve had nothing but “one-way stimulators,” according to Joseph Neimat, a neurosurgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who specializes in deep brain stimulation implants. “The devices don’t record or respond to a patient,” he says. “What would be better would be to have a system that could anticipate or read a patient’s state and respond with an appropriate stimulus.”
That’s the exact problem Medtronic’s device aims to solve. Beginning Wednesday, the company began patient trials to see how well it can record brain function. If it works well, then it can deliver the appropriate shocks at the appropriate times. Many of the disorders it seeks to treat are cyclical but often times sporadic. Being able to monitor the electrical activity could provide more accurate and helpful treatment.
It can even help us further identify certain disorders. “Being able to objectively determine changes in neural activity in different patients may give us some tools for subdividing depression on a neurobiological basis rather than based on symptoms and signs observed from the outside,” says Ron Salomon, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University.
It may take time for the device to be fully functional, but when it is, medicine will change for the better.