A Parkinson's researcher in the Parkinson's UK brain bank

Deep brain stimulation boosts the strength of brain cell batteries

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Research shows that deep brain stimulation may help boost energy levels in Parkinson’s brain cells by increasing the size of mitochondria.

Scientists at Imperial College London have discovered a potential way in which deep brain stimulation (DBS) can help tackle Parkinson's symptoms. The early stage research, published in The FASEB journal, found that DBS increases the size of mitochondria in people with Parkinson's.

Examining the cell batteries

The team examined the effects deep brain stimulation has on the target brain  cells using post-mortem brain tissue from the Parkinson's UK Brain Bank. Specifically, they looked at the effects of the mitochondria – the batteries that power the brain cells.

10 brains were examined in total: 3 brains from people without Parkinson's; 4 people with the condition; and 3 people with Parkinson's who had been treated with DBS.

What is deep brain stimulation?

DBS is surgical treatment to manage symptoms of Parkinson's. Around 300 people with Parkinson's undergo deep brain stimulation every year in the UK.

In DBS, very fine wires are carefully inserted into the brain to electrically stimulate particular groups of brain cells involved in controlling movement to adjust their activity. These wires are then connected to a battery pack which is usually placed under the skin in the chest.

The effect on symptoms is similar to taking levodopa, but the key advantage is that the effects of DBS are constant.

Despite the success of the treatment, it's still not fully understood how this electrical stimulation works to improve movement. It's particularly unclear how DBS works at a cellular level. Studies in animals suggest that the treatment could be protecting brain cells from damage, but the findings haven't been conclusive.

A boost in energy

The new study found that, in people with Parkinson's, the number and size of mitochondria were decreased compared with those without the condition. However, DBS was shown to increase the size of mitochondria back to healthy levels in the brains of people with Parkinson's.

It's known that mitochondria stop working properly in Parkinson's, depriving the brain cell of the essential energy it needs to function. These new results suggest that DBS slows or stops the loss of mitochondria in Parkinson's, boosting the energy levels in the brain cells. This in turn may help reduce problems with movement and tremors.  

David Dexter, Deputy Director of Research, Parkinson's UK, said: 

"While deep brain stimulation is best known for its ability to manage some of the movement symptoms of Parkinson's, researchers at the Parkinson's UK Brain Bank have previously found other interesting benefits of this therapy, such as the role it plays in restoring the blood brain barrier – the last line of defence that keeps nasty microorganisms and toxins out the brain.

"This new study identifies yet another role for this therapy, to keep the brain functioning by reversing the loss of energy producing mitochondria.

"The Parkinson's UK Brain Bank is the UK's largest dedicated to Parkinson's research, and plays a vital role in the search for new and better treatments. It is currently supporting more than 100 projects using tissue from over 1,100 Parkinson's brain donations. 

"We thank all the donors, past, present and future, for their contribution that continues to increase our understanding and drive us towards new and better treatments for Parkinson's."

Find out more

Read more about deep brain stimulation on our research blog, including what's on the horizon.