Duke researchers evolve deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s

Advances in deep brain stimulation technology developed at Duke University could evolve and improve how Parkinson’s disease symptoms are treated, according to the university.

Biomedical engineers at Duke have used computers to improve patterns of electric shocks delivered deep within the brain to treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms, according to the announcement.

The new energy-saving patterns could reduce the number of battery replacement surgeries needed during a patient’s lifetime and lead to patterns tailored to treat specific symptoms.

First introduced in 1987, deep brain stimulation sends electrical pulses deep into the brains of people suffering from neurological motor control diseases through wires implanted into an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. Stimulation greatly improves motor function in many patients, though the reasons why remain unclear.

While trying to understand the basic mechanisms involved, Duke engineers discovered that timing patterns of deep brain stimulation became less effective as they became more random. This implied that there might be non-random patterns that work better than a constant barrage of pulses. Over the past few years, the team has serendipitously discovered several such patterns.

Now, the Duke researchers have built an evolutionary computer algorithm to more purposefully design effective patterns. In a new study with human patients, the program developed a pattern that cuts stimulator energy usage by up to 75 percent while losing none of the treatment’s benefits. With a greater understanding of the neural activity that gives rise to specific symptoms, the algorithm could design patterns tailored to each person’s needs.

The results appear online on Jan. 4, 2017, in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

“Cutting energy use is important because when these devices’ primary cell batteries run out, they have to be replaced through a surgical procedure,” said BMES member Warren Grill in the university article.

 “Besides being expensive, studies have shown that that there is a 2 to 3 percent chance of infection, which goes up each time the procedure is done. And because these batteries only last three to five years, someone receiving an implant at age 50 could undergo many procedures in a lifetime.”