Research Highlight: Using Technology to Mend the Human Race

The integration of technology and the human body is often confined to sci-fi, but are Cybermen really fiction? The human nervous system is essentially run on electricity caused by the movement of ions across our nervous cells, so it may not come as a surprise that scientists are using electricity to manipulate the human body.

Deep brain stimulation, or DBS, is the implantation of electrodes deep into a patient’s brain, which electrically stimulate specific areas. A wire is then passed through their neck to a pacemaker located under their skin just underneath their collarbone. The targets of the electrodes depend on the specific disease being treated, which most commonly include Parkinson’s disease, depression, and chronic pain.

DBS is used as a last resort for patients who are resistant to the common drug treatments available for these conditions. Parkinson’s disease for example, is characterised by uncontrollable shaking and difficulties in speaking. Patients struggle to complete simple tasks, making them dependent on others to function in everyday life. The advanced stages of the disease leave patients stranded, frozen where they were stood and completely unable to move.

“The effects of DBS on the symptoms of this disease are staggering”.

A remote control can be used to switch the electricity in the system on and off, allowing patients to have full control over their treatment. The effects of DBS on the symptoms of this disease are staggering.

Within milliseconds of switching off a DBS system, a person with Parkinson’s would lose all control over their movement. When the system is switched back on it is instantaneously so effective that you would have never known that the person had any sort of illness at all.

Chronic suicidal thoughts are a symptom of depression, and one that can rule the lives of suffering patients. In recounts of patient experiences it is often said that when their DBS system is initially switched on, there is a sense of these negative feelings being ‘lifted away.’

One 37-year-old female patient that underwent DBS treatment for depression, as part of research carried out by DBS pioneer Helen Mayberg, stated that she “then noticed how many people were in the operating room”, and felt she “could see clearly, where before everything had sort of been a fog all the time”, once the electricity was turned on.

Opiates such as morphine and codeine have often been considered the ‘gold standard’ of analgesics (painkillers), but they are associated with many problems if taken to treat chronic long term pain. Patients become tolerant to the drugs fairly quickly, and so require increased doses throughout their lives, often resulting in the drug having little or no effect.

“The future of DBS is a bright one, with innovative new research into the treatment of many disorders including Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy”.

Opiates are also notoriously addictive, and taking this class of drugs long term can cause dependence and several adverse effects. DBS has been used to alleviate treatment-resistant pain, and has therefore been a source of hope to many with this incapacitating symptom that hugely influences their quality of life.

The future of DBS is a bright one, with innovative new research into the treatment of many disorders including Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy. Future DBS treatments of epilepsy may include the development of systems that automatically switch on and off for the duration of an epileptic fit, which has the potential to revolutionise the lives of those suffering from severe cases of the condition.

There is potential for this groundbreaking system, and current research is opening new doors for the alleviation of the symptoms associated with treatment-resistant disease.

Amika McCulloch

Image courtesy of Ivan via Flicker.

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