A pacemaker for the brain

How project STARDUST could be a new treatment for Parkinson's Disease

This week on Synapse I wanted to share an interesting project that I came across recently that aims to use a micro-scale device to treat brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease. The project is called STARDUST and it aims to develop a tiny device that can be implanted in someone’s brain and influence the local neuronal activity such that one’s disease symptoms could be mitigated.

For example, a patient with Parkinson’s disease has brain degeneration in a very specific part of the brain which causes the debilitating tremors or shaking and other cognitive symptoms. The reason for this motor malfunction is complicated, but it has to do with a disruption in the neural circuits in the limbic and motor pathways. You can see just how intricate this pathway is here:

Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders are caused either by less-than or more-than typical neuron activity in various parts of the brain. It makes sense then that one strategy to alleviate symptoms and cure the disease is to stimulate brain areas that are underperforming or depress over-active brain areas.

How can we do this?

One strategy is to use medications that can mimic the molecules that your brain uses to communicate. Many pain relievers, for example, work by blocking the receptors in your brain that respond to pain.

However, the problem with this strategy is that traditional, oral medications that diffuse into your blood tend to affect the entire brain passively—unable to affect one brain area but not another. So how do we affect just a specific brain area?

This is where project STARDUST comes in.

One aspect of STARDUST is a device that could monitor the activity in a specific brain area and make corrections when necessary—just like how a pacemaker can ensure a healthy heart rhythm.

The control of a micro device from STARDUST could even achieve the level of individual neurons using technologies like optogenetics.

As cool as this is, I of course have questions about the safety and ethics of implanting electronic devices in people’s brains. But I like how this story demonstrates how we can think laterally about one well-established medical technology—pacemakers—and apply it to other areas.

What do you think? Would you implant a micro-device in your brain capable of altering your experience? Let me know in the comments!

⚡️P.S. If you're new here and want to read more of the Synapse Newsletter each Sunday, subscribe below!⚡️