Brussels, 02 Aug 2005
Two German researchers have been awarded the Erwin Schrödinger Prize for their development of a 'brain pacemaker' for the treatment of nervous disorders such as Parkinson's disease.
The 50,000 euro prize is awarded annually for outstanding interdisciplinary research. This year's winners are Professor Peter Tass from Jülich Research Centre and Professor Volker Sturm from the University of Cologne.
'This year's prizewinners have succeeded excellently in combining mathematics, physics and medicine in a cross-disciplinary approach. This enabled them to develop a therapy to specifically counteract certain pathological processes in Parkinson's patients,' said jury member and Dean of the Faculty of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Heidelberg, Professor Johanna Stachel.
While treatment with drugs can help Parkinson's patients for a limited amount of time, they eventually lose their effectiveness and also result in massive side effects.
An alternative treatment involves deep stimulation through the small electrode implants in the brain. The electrodes transmit impulses at high frequencies into the diseased brain region and suppress the nerve impulses that cause Parkinson's sufferers to shake involuntarily.
In the past, this treatment has involved 'continuous fire' from the electrodes. However, even this treatment has limits - some patients fail to respond at all to the treatment, while others find that the therapeutic effects fade or disappear completely during treatment.
The method developed by Professors Tass and Sturm involves the delivery of individual electrical impulses to various groups of nerve cells as required. The scientists first simulated the synchronous firing of the affected brain areas in mathematical models. Using methods from mathematics and physics they developed stimulation techniques that use the self-organisational processes of the neuron chains and are therefore particularly effective and compatible.
This new method does not suppress nerve impulses, as is the case of the conventional implants, but instead desynchronises them. Initial clinical trials showed that the tremors usually experienced by Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis patients were much better suppressed and required a much lower stimulation current. Professors Tass and Sturm believe that this mild but efficient modulation of nerve cell activity will lead to fewer side effects in long-term application of the treatment.
The scientists intend to set up a company that will produce the brain pacemaker for clinical application. A medical ward has already opened at Jülich Research Centre, allowing the researchers to optimise and further advance their devices.