Tinkering with the brain

Once upon a time I met a man who tested as gifted at age 13, genius by 16, and was homeless by 40. The twin shadows of depression and insomnia stalled even the possibility of his intellectual stardom. I have another friend who planned to retire and paint children’s furniture, but now that she has reached the correct age, one of her hands shakes uncontrollably. I have a third friend, who for a lifetime, was in possession of a memory that far exceeded the majority. At 82 she is startled to find herself “normal.” She forgets things, what she came for, what she was about to do.

What does my cast of friends have in common? Canadian neurosurgeon, Andres Lozano, points out that were it a few thousand years ago, what they might have in common is having a local shaman drill a hole in their heads to release the demons therein. That’s how manifestations of brain malfunction were handled a few thousand years ago.

Since then, modern medicine has had limited success when it comes to break downs in the brain. Especially, if you consider the list of side-effects that go along with the pills, that may, or may not, “cure what ails ya.”

Today, however, I am feeling a renewed and profound sense of optimism for those struck with depression, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Lozano, whose lists of recommendations would complete this article, has pioneered a method of localized deep brain stimulation for people who suffer from mood, movement, or memory disorders. Dr. Lozano reports that the many of the malfunctions of the brain are the responsibility of “rogue neurons misfiring,” or neurons going inactive altogether. To correct such malfunctions, he starts much as the Meso Americans did by cutting a hole in the skull of his patient. He follows this crude, yet standard start, with the insertion of an electrode at a key juncture that will either suppress or activate circuitry within the brain through the use of a remote much like the one you use for your TV (The implanted electrode is additionally connected to a pacemaker). The remote is used to control the amount of electricity that is appropriate, explains Dr. Lozano, much as you might turn up or down the volume on your radio once you find the right station.

With Parkinson’s patients the electrode is working to suppress activity in the part of the brain that controls movement. Two patients have had this procedure. The results appear to be immediate and remarkable.

This deep brain stimulation is also being researched as an aid to those who suffer from depression. To wit, when a person is overcome by depression, the area in the brain that controls sadness is in over-drive, and the areas that control motivation, drive, and decision-making, are in low-gear.  To correct this malfunction, Dr. Lozano, places an electrode so that it suppresses the locale (area 25) in the brain that controls sadness, which over time, reactivates the parts of the brain that control motivation, drive, and decision-making.

Fifty people with early stage Alzheimer’s will soon be tested for re-activation of those areas that control memory and cognition, by this very same method.

Isn’t science grand, when it works?

For more information: http://www.ted.com/talks/andres_lozano_parkinson_s_depression_and_the_switch_that_might_turn_them_off.html.

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