A NEW brain stimulation therapy could help supress tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease, according to new research.
The non-invasive technique has been pioneered by researchers supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, a collaboration between Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and Oxford University to accelerate healthcare innovation.
The research, published online by the journal Current Biology, shows that non-invasive transcranial alternating current stimulation (TACS) is effective in tremor suppression.
TACS works by using an electrical current to cancel out the brain signal causing the tremor.
Physical tremors are a significant and debilitating symptom of Parkinson’s disease, but do not respond well to existing drug treatments.
Tremors can be successfully treated with deep brain stimulation, a technique that involves inserting electrodes into the brain itself to deliver electrical impulses. But this invasive therapy is expensive and carries some health risks, including bleeding in to the brain, which means it is not suitable for all patients.
TACS does not carry the risks associated with deep brain stimulation as the electrode pads are placed on the surface of the patient’s head.
This preliminary study was conducted with 15 patients with Parkinson’s disease at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.
It was also supported by the Medical Research Council, Rosetrees Trust, the Wellcome Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Professor Peter Brown, of Oxford BRC’s Functional Neuroscience Theme, who led the study, said: “Tremors experienced by Parkinson’s sufferers can be devastating and any therapy that can supress or reduce those tremors significantly improves quality of life for patients.
“We are very hopeful this research may, in time, lead to a therapy that is both successful and carries reduced medical risks. We have proved the principle, now we have to optimise it and adapt it so it is able to be used in patients. Often that is the hardest part.
“But the great strength of the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, which combines the clinical expertise of the NHS with the research capability at the University, is we have the range of expertise needed to help accelerate discoveries into new treatments.”
TACS works by placing two pads on the patient, one close to the base of the neck and one on the head, above the motor cortex (part of the brain implicated in controlling the tremors).
The alternating current stimulation it delivers is matched to the oscillating tremor signal to cancel it out and supress the physical tremor.
The results of the study showed a 50 per cent reduction in resting tremors.
Professor Brown added: “The approach is based on the fact the brain operates using brain waves. If we can stimulate with matching waves we can either replace a signal that is absent or, in this case, cancel out a pathological brain wave.
“It is similar to the principle of noise cancelling headphones that we are all familiar with. Those headphones detect ambient noise and then produce a signal to cancel it out.”
Professor Brown said the therapy now had to be developed into a viable patient treatment for Parkinson tremors, which could involve a “closed loop” system that would continually detect the brain signal and adjust the delivered stimulation to cancel it out.
He said such technology could involve a system where pads were placed under the skin, allowing the therapy to remain “minimally invasive” to reduce risk but making it more convenient for a patient to be fitted with the device.
He added: “There would be nothing to see, no wires on show, but it would deliver stimulation continuously.”
Professor Brown said further work would also look at the effectiveness of prolonged stimulation and whether the therapy may help the brain adapt itself to control tremors.