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Brain Implants Help Scientists Speak the Brain’s Language

brain communication imageIn trying to understand how the brain works, doctors and scientists can observe a subject’s behavior and responses.

They can also use brain mapping and other techniques, as we do here at Columbia University Medical Center Department of Neurosurgery, to explore what’s wrong when a patient shows symptoms in line with brain disease or brain injury.

Neuro-specialists at Columbia and elsewhere are making fast progress in their quest to pinpoint why brains sometimes don’t function at full capacity—and what to do about it. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal details some of the ways scientists are learning how to communicate with the brain, in its own language, using what are called “brain implants.”

Communication in the brain occurs in two directions: Information may be submitted to the brain via the senses, and the brain, in turn, sends out directives to the rest of the body.

When a brain is healthy and functioning according to design, this back-and-forth happens naturally and in the blink of an eye. When the brain is damaged or diseased, as in the case of a stroke or Parkinson disease, the communication slows or is completely disrupted.

Researchers like neurosurgeon Dr. Sameer Sheth of the Functional and Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory here at the Department of Neurosurgery are looking at new ways to restore this communication by using medical intervention to mimic or otherwise affect the brain’s pathways.

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, scientists are getting closer to understanding how the brain communicates—and to being able to tweak that communication—using brain implants.

These devices could increasingly allow doctors to nudge a brain compromised by age or disease back toward behaving more like its healthy self. And with that, doctors may be able to implement more effective treatments for conditions such as stroke, Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease.

Brain implants themselves are not new. One version, deep brain stimulation (DBS), has been in use for about 15 years for the treatment of Parkinson disease, where it’s been effective at alleviating the tremors, stiffness and slowness characteristic of that disorder. And Dr. Sheth is actively involved in Columbia’s research on psychiatric uses for DBS, including as a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression.

With DBS, tiny electrodes are implanted in the areas of the brain affected by a specific condition. Those electrodes are then connected to a battery-powered device in the patient’s chest or abdomen, something like a pacemaker, which delivers electrical stimulation to the brain. That stimulation interrupts the abnormal flow of information within the brain that results from disease or injury, and thus restores function to the circuit.

Now Dr. Sheth is also studying DBS as a treatment for schizophrenia. Dr. Sheth, along with neurosurgeon Dr. Guy McKhann, Director of the Epilepsy Neurophysiology Laboratory, recently contributed to a study, “A Decade of Emerging Indications: Deep Brain Stimulation in the United States,” published in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

The study noted the rapid growth of DBS as a treatment for an increasing number of neurological and psychiatric diseases and looked at current practices in treatment, along with safety protocols and patient outcomes.

DBS is being evaluated to treat a wide range of conditions. Use of DBS to treat Parkinson disease, essential tremor and dystonia (uncontrollable muscle spasms) has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while its use as a treatment for OCD has a limited form of FDA approval.

Meanwhile, DBS use for general anxiety disorder, major depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury and Tourette syndrome is under active investigation.

These brain-implant studies mark exciting advances in the field of brain research, with the potential to vastly improve quality of life for patients dealing with the effects of brain disease or injury.

We are proud to have two of those researchers, Dr. Sheth and Dr. McKhann, on our team here at Columbia Neurosurgery. And we’re eager to follow along, with the knowledge that these brain developments will help us provide even better care to our patients at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Learn more about Dr. Sheth on his bio page here.
Learn more about Dr. McKhann on his bio page here.

Image Credit: ©geralt/pixabay

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