NIH-backed device is first to offer long-term wireless monitoring of Parkinson's patients' brain activity

MRI brain scan
A deep brain stimulation device continuously transmits the neurological activity of patients with Parkinson’s disease to handheld receivers, which in turn relay the data to a cloud-based server via Bluetooth. (Ildar Imashev / Getty Images)

In a veritable whirlwind of neurological discovery—a brain storm, if you will—researchers have developed a device with the potential to massively improve our understanding of the effects of Parkinson’s disease on brain activity.

The system includes a neurostimulation device implanted on a patient’s chest, with thin wires connected to electrodes in the brain. Those electrodes track brain activity and transmit the collected data to a nearby pocket-sized device. The receiver, in turn, uploads the data via Bluetooth to a tablet and cloud-based server.

Working in the opposite direction, neurologists can analyze the data to adjust the electrical signals sent to the brain through the electrodes. Those signals regulate activity in the motor control areas of the brain, offering a treatment option for neurological disorders that affect movement such as Parkinson’s.

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Though other deep brain stimulation devices have already been cleared by the FDA for use in managing Parkinson’s symptoms, the technology has so far been limited to use only in controlled clinical settings and for short periods of time.

“This is the first device that allows for continuous and direct wireless recording of the entire brain signal over many hours,” Philip Starr said in a release, whose University of California, San Francisco lab helped develop the device. “That means we are able to perform whole brain recording over a long period of time while people are going about their daily lives.”

With that ability, the researchers were able to establish a baseline of patients’ day-to-day neurological patterns and better understand how certain activities impact brain function. Continued analysis of this long-term data would give researchers a closer look at the underlying causes of Parkinson’s and help them identify early changes in neurological behavior that could be used to predict future cases.

Additionally, with hours’ worth of daily data in hand, neurologists could begin to program neurostimulation devices to be tailored to each patient’s individual brain activity patterns throughout the day, allowing for more precise treatment of Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.

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Despite the many potential benefits of continuous monitoring, however, the device’s makers noted that it does pose certain ethical concerns.

“Although we are not at the point where we can distinguish specific normal behaviors from brain activity recording, it is an absolutely legitimate concern,” Starr said. “We have told patients to feel free to remove their wearable devices and to turn off their brain recordings whenever they engage in activities they would like to keep private.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative. The BRAIN initiative also backed a 2018 project led by Starr that resulted in the initial development of the device, sans its new long-term capabilities.