Development of an Innovative Brain Pacemaker using Methods taken from Random Physics and Nonlinear Mathematics

(f.l.t.r.) Prof. Dr. med. Volker Sturm, Prof. Dr. med. Dr. rer. nat. Peter A. Tass

Prof. Dr. med. Dr. rer. nat. Peter A. Tass (Spokesperson)
Prof. Dr. med. Volker Sturm

Forschungszentrum Jülich in der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft
Universität zu Köln

Many people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease are treated with brain pacemakers – a great help for patients. But the treatment also often has side effects. Can they be avoided?

The answer is “yes, they can” thanks to a new technology for brain pacemakers developed by Peter A. Tass and Volker Sturm. Peter A. Tass is professor for Therapeutic Neurophysiology at the University of Cologne and coordinating director of the Virtual Institute for Neuromodulation at the Research Center Jülich. Volker Sturm is chair and director at the Clinic for Stereotaxis and Functional Neurosurgery at the University of Cologne.

Nerve cells fire simultaneously
In Germany, around 400,000 people are affected by Parkinson’s. This disease is brought on by a malfunction of nerve cells in certain regions of the brain. Instead of firing erratically as they would in a healthy person, Morbus Parkinson causes neurons to send signals simultaneously and with all their might – they are pathologically active and synchronized.

Many Parkinson’s patients with severe motor disturbances that are not treatable with medication are treated with brain pacemakers. In this form of treatment, electrodes are implanted in the affected regions of the brain. The electrical stimulation applied continuously by the pacemaker suppresses neural activity, thereby causing the manifestations of the disease to virtually disappear. Yet in some patients the treatment which also halts normal brain function in the stimulated regions has side effects. Other patients do not respond to treatment.

Gentle stimulation quiets the neurons
The novel brain pacemaker Tass and Sturm have developed works differently: when brain cells begin to fire at the same time, the pacemaker doses pulses to desynchronize the overactive nerve cells. Instead of simply preventing the firing, nerve cell activity is normalized, returned to healthy behavior through the application of mild, targeted stimuli. This makes therapy effective and rules out side effects. In developing this procedure, the researchers mapped the affected network of nerves and their diseased dynamics in models and from them developed gentle stimulation techniques based on mathematical and statistical methods.

The targeted stimuli of the new brain pacemaker cause alterations in the network of nerves – and thereby produce long-term relief from the disease. The new treatment is ideal for motor disturbances and functional impairments following stroke, epilepsy, as well as psychiatric disturbances. Tass and Sturm now hope to ready the pacemaker for clinical use in a jointly founded enterprise.

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