Researchers are now able to wirelessly record the directly measured brain activity of patients with Parkinson’s disease and then use this information to adjust the stimulation delivered by an implanted device. The direct recording of deep and superficial brain activity provides a unique insight into the underlying causes of many brain disorders. Up until that point, technological challenges have limited the human brain’s direct recordings to relatively short periods of time in controlled clinical settings.
This project, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, was funded by Brain Research from the National Institutes of Health through the Funding of Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN).
This is truly the first example of wireless long-term recording of deep and superficial human brain activity in participants’ homes. It is also the first home demonstration of adaptive deep brain stimulation.
Kari Ashmont, Ph.D., project manager for the NIH BRAIN initiative.
DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) devices are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of Parkinson’s symptoms by implanting a thin wire or electrode that sends electrical signals into the brain. In 2018 the laboratory was founded by Philip Starr, MD, Ph.D. An adaptive version of DBS was developed at the University of California at San Francisco, which adapts the stimulation to the recorded brain activity only when necessary. In this study, Dr. Starr and his colleagues made some additional improvements to the implanted technology.
This is the first device that enables continuous and direct wireless recording of the entire brain signal over many hours. That is, we are able to do a whole-brain record over a long period of time while people go about their daily lives.
Dr. Philip Starr, MD, Ph.D.
The effects of this type of recording are significant. The patterns of brain activity (neural signatures) normally used to identify problems such as Parkinson’s symptoms have traditionally been recorded in clinical settings over short periods of time. This new technology makes it possible to validate these signatures during normal daily activities.
Another advantage of recording over long periods of time is that clear changes in brain activity (biomarkers) can now be identified for individual patients, which could predict movement disorders. Ro’ee Gilron, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Starr’s lab, and first author of this study, stated that this enables a level of bespoke DBS treatment that was previously impossible to achieve.
We have been approached by patients with privacy concerns. While we haven’t gotten to the point where we can distinguish certain normal behaviors from recording brain activity, it is a perfectly legitimate concern. We have told patients that they can feel free to remove their wearable devices and turn off their brain records whenever they are doing activities they want to keep private.
An unforeseen benefit of this study was that since it required little or no direct contact with doctors after surgery, it was ideally suited for the social distancing that is vital during the COVID-19 pandemic. The technologies used for remote patient monitoring and telehealth were originally developed for the convenience of study participants, but have wider application to other research projects that have stalled due to COVID-19.
The importance of studying behavior in a natural environment, such as at home, in the context of neural activity was recently highlighted in a neuroscientific report by BRAIN 2.0. Dr. Ashmont emphasized that this study represents a significant step in this direction and will help scientists understand not only disorders, but also the neural representation of behavior in general.
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