Noninvasive Brain Stimulator May Ease Parkinson’s Symptoms

People suffering from Parkinson’s disease may soon be able to treat their own tremors and muscle stiffness without invasive therapy or even a trip to the doctor.

An experimental headband-shaped device can deliver daily, noninvasive brain stimulation at home and suppress Parkinson’s symptoms. An incurable neurodegenerative disease, Parkinson’s affects 1 million people in the United States and 7 million worldwide.

The prototype, developed by biomedical engineering graduate students at Johns Hopkins University, hasn’t yet been tested on humans, but it’s seen as a promising first step toward helping Parkinson’s patients safely relieve their own symptoms.

Treatment Painless

For patients in advanced stages of the disease, one treatment option is deep brain stimulation, in which a surgeon implants thin electrical leads into the brain. A pulse generator—similar to a heart pacemaker—goes under the skin and sends electrical signals to the brain.

Shruthi Rajan, a team member, says:

“We saw that this procedure is really invasive and can take 10 to 15 hours to complete. It’s also very expensive, and not all patients qualify for the surgery. We asked if there was a way to provide the same treatment in a less invasive way that doesn’t require brain surgery.”

The students were referred to Yousef Salimpour, a Johns Hopkins Medicine postdoctoral research associate studying a noninvasive Parkinson’s therapy called transcranial direct current stimulation.

In this painless treatment, low-level current is passed through two electrodes placed over the head to tweak electrical activity in specific areas of the brain. The technique can be used to excite or inhibit these nerve cells.

The treatment is experimental, but has attracted attention because it does not require surgery and is inexpensive, safe, and relatively easy to administer without any side effects.

Like a Baseball Cap

This illustration depicts the design of the STIMband component of the Johns Hopkins students’ prototype for Parkinson’s patients. Graphic by Tremtex team.

This illustration depicts the design of the STIMband component of the Johns Hopkins students’ prototype for Parkinson’s patients. Graphic by Tremtex team.

The biomedical engineering students met with Salimpour.

“We told him we had an idea for a portable home version of this equipment,” Rajan says. “But we planned to add safety measures to make sure the patient used it properly without a doctor or nurse being present.”

The students aimed for a prototype that would enable a patient to activate the battery-powered treatment by touching a large, easy-to-press button. The students designed their prototype to deliver current for only 20 minutes daily and only at a doctor-prescribed level.

Dozens of Parkinson’s patients helped the students craft the headband so it would be easy to put on, comfortable, and positioned correctly on the head.

“For a comfortable fit, we put an elastic band in the back and told the patients to put it on like a baseball cap,” team member Ian Graham says. “The interaction with the patients was really helpful.”

Remote Adjust

The students also received guidance from other members of an interdisciplinary team of Johns Hopkins medical researchers.

“Our group is working on the idea of using noninvasive brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease symptom control as a new clinical treatment,” Salimpour says. “Our preliminary results were promising. Patients keep asking us for more of this treatment.

But we couldn’t provide the treatment for them because there is no portable and FDA-approved device like this for Parkinson’s patients that is on the market at this time. The biomedical engineering students then approached us with the idea of designing the home-based treatment device. They did a great job, and made a fascinating prototype. We hope that based on their preliminary work, Parkinson’s patients will receive the benefit of this new technique at home very soon.”

The inventors have provisional patents on the device, dubbed the STIMband. Another student team is slated to take over the project in September to move it closer to patient availability. One addition may be a wireless connection to allow a doctor to adjust a home patient’s treatment level from a remote location.

Photo: Q-L. Ying & A. Smith, Wellcome Images