Brain pacemaker offers hope to Alzheimer's patients


by Jay Crandall

Posted on April 3, 2013 at 4:31 PM

PHOENIX -- You've probably heard of pacemakers used to help your heart.

But did you know they can help treat Parkinson's?

Now, doctors in Arizona hope pacemakers can slow down Alzheimer’s Disease.

Leon Mertz is one of the first patients helping doctors in their research. He says he made the decision, after noticing, his memory failing.

“I could tell right near the end of my construction career , that is when I started, my memory wasn't as good, “ said Mertz.

He was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s just two months ago, but he says he had suspicion something was wrong before that.

“I'll set something down, a pencil or a pop can, and I don't know where the hell I put just drives you nuts, “ stated Mertz.

Mertz's wife Sharon says he didn't seem as detail oriented or as organized as usual.

“And then like we are trying to clean out the garage this summer and I went out there three hours later and he had moved things but he hadn't really done anything," recalled Sharon.

Still, for Leon and Sharon, who love to travel and have homes both here and in Minnesota, it was not easy to hear.

”One of the things we wanted to do is travel more of the united states,” said Sharon. “ And we might still be able to do that, but we had some trips lined up out of the country. Right now I wouldn't do that.”

Leon adds that the diagnosis brings reality home, and that retirement might not be what they had hoped.

“We have both cried sometimes,” he admitted.

Sharon has taken over keeping the finances and Leon does not drive far without her there to navigate.

Geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Anna Burke says aside from the memory loss that is indicative of the disease, “You may be making more mistakes in paying bills; you may be making more errors in taking medications.”

Burke, who is treating Leon at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute, was also able to offer him an experimental therapy that has shown some promise.

“This is actually a study of a device called a deep brain stimulator, something most people know as the pacemaker for the brain,” says Burke.

Just last week, two small wires were implanted in Leon’s brain, attached to a small battery to stimulate what Dr. Burke calls the brain's superhighway.

“It is a part of the brain that connects different regions, including the memory centers," she said.

A small initial study showed some patients actually had their memory centers grow, as the deep brain probes delivered small electrical pulses.

Dr. Burke says it is a treatment that moves beyond medication alone.

“As researchers we always enter into these clinical trials with cautious optimism,” said Dr. Burke.

Because this is a study, neither the doctor nor Leon knows whether his device is actually turned on. 

“I am hoping that it helps me so I can enjoy a little better life than what I am doing, “ said Leon.

It's a sentiment shared by Sharon.

“Yes I am excited about it. I am excited for him, I am excited for us, and if it just slows it some, none of us have a bond on tomorrow, but we would like to look at some future that is a little farther out," said Sharon.

Leon says even if it doesn't help him, all he as to do is remember his kids, to know a little more research is worth it.

“I don't want to see them have to go through this, and I know what it is because I lived with it," said Leon.

Twenty patients nationwide will be implanted with the devices.

Over the next year, doctors will look at both the safety of the device, and cognitive changes in those patients. 

Banner is the only facility in the western United States involved in the study.