Unique approach shows the way to new treatment methods for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
A common factor for such diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is that the brain’s signals do not reach their target cells. Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology are the first in Europe to take this on by simulating the brain’s communication between areas to be able to correct the problem.
The results can lead to new methods to restore the electric balance in the brain. This is something that would improve many people’s lives. In Europe alone, diseases of the brain cost society around EUR 800 billion per year, equivalent to one third of the total cost for healthcare.
Questioning of how we currently view diseases of the brain is the starting point. Today’s pharmacological treatment methods often target what has gone wrong at the molecular level in the cells. A changed function at this level in turn causes changes to the activity of the nerve cells and the signaling between the cells. Consequently, an alternative is to look up one level, at the network level, to more directly correct the errors that arise in the brain’s electric activity.
Pacemaker for the brain
Today, deep brain stimulation is already an established and effective treatment method for motor diseases of the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, this method has also been used for psychiatric diseases, such as severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, deep depression and Tourette’s syndrome.
The technology behind deep brain stimulation can be compared to a pacemaker for the brain. Surgeons attach electrodes to special areas in the brain, which are then stimulated by electrical impulses from a pulse generator. Although the technique has provided good results, it is not really known why it works. It also does not work for anywhere near all of the patients.
KTH has established a new lab to study the brain’s communication in various illnesses with computer models. The goal is to provide understanding of the brain’s way of coordinating its activity to identify better treatment methods, such as improving the technology for deep brain stimulation. The results may be entirely new treatment methods to give patients with e.g. Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease the chance for a better and richer life. The models can also be used to develop new, better medication that solves the problem by re-establishing normal communication between brain areas.
Arvind Kumar, a researcher whose computing models have provided new and in-depth knowledge about decision-making, learning and various motor functions. Together with Jeanette Helgren Kotaleski, Erik Fransen, Örjan Smedby and Wojciech Chachólski, he is participating in KTH Digital Futures with the goal of using computer models and machine learning to generate better diagnosis and treatment methods for diseases of the brain.