July 28, 2015

STIMband: Will a Simple Headband Reduce Parkinson's Symptoms with Controlled Electrical Impulses?

Will people with Parkinson’s (PWPs) soon have access to a headband-like contraption that administers carefully controlled electrical impulses to the brain, thereby relieving some of the disease’s most common motor symptoms?

A team of five graduate students from Johns Hopkins University think the answer is YES, in the form of a product called STIMband.

For six years, this blog has included many commentaries about treating Parkinson’s disease (PD).
  • Many posts concern the attempts of science to replace the dopamine – a key neurotransmitter – that the disease destroys, thereby compromising the brain’s ability to direct the body’s actions.
  • Many posts concern new drugs being developed to target just-identified biomarkers of PD, like a specific type of protein or plaque. 
  • Many posts pass along (I learned early in my blog experience NOT to recommend anything) information about over-the-counter (OTC) products that have worked for me… like the serotonin booster 5-HTP, which has been a great help in treating (or keeping at bay) common non-motor symptoms of PD, like depression, insomnia, and constipation.
  • Many posts concern information about botanical products that have been proven to support health generally and to reduce the risk of certain diseases. A prime example is curcumin, the active ingredient in the Indian curry spice turmeric. It has been used medicinally for millennia and subjected to rigorous testing. Based on the science, I’m a believer.
  • Some posts concern the importance of exercise in mitigating PD’s symptoms. There are many different kinds of exercise that reportedly bring great benefits -- like dancing, singing, boxing, and tai chi. If it involves movement, it’s probably been shown to be helpful.
  • A few posts have covered the latest news about invasive surgical procedures, like deep brain stimulation (DBS). This surgery is considered a “last resort” for people with advanced PD who no longer are benefiting from standard therapies.

There are risks involved with all these treatments. Drugs often bring negative, unintended consequences, like the bodily jerks and tics of dyskinesia. OTC products are frequently mislabeled or can cause serious adverse interactions with other drugs or supplements or just do not provide the overhyped benefit. DBS is serious surgery with risks of infection and stroke. Even exercise – the “treatment” that seems to make everyone’s “do THIS” list – can cause falls and injuries.

Back to those Hopkins Students and their STIMband
Guided by Yousef Salimpour, a research associate neuroscientist at Hopkins, the students created a comfortable, snug, easy-to-use headband – it goes on like a baseball cap -- that positions electrodes over the part of the brain that controls movement. In the comfort of home, the PWP presses a large red button, easy for a shaky hand to operate. The device then delivers a pre-programmed amount of painless electrical impulses -- for about twenty minutes a day -- at the intensity prescribed by the PWP’s doctor.

The limited anecdotal evidence so far suggests that the test subjects found their motor symptoms somewhat eased, perhaps because of increased dopamine production.

The effect is still a bit of a mystery. Said Salimpour: "When you use it on the patient, you see results. But how it works, we don't know."

The science here isn’t what you’d call rigorous. The students worked with only about 40 PWPs who wore the device, offered advice on how to improve its fit and comfort, and detailed their own experiences. While the subjects reported some symptom improvements, the device must still undergo the usual clinical trials before the medical community really takes STIMband seriously.

Still, the students think they’re on to something important. And they’re not alone.

Many Awards 
In June, STIMband won the $5,000 second-place prize in VentureWell's BMEidea national design contest for biomedical and bioengineering students. In May, the invention earned first-place honors in the People's Choice Award competition at Johns Hopkins' Biomedical Engineering Design Day 2015. Before that, STIMband was a finalist in the Rice University Business Plan Competition.

David Blumenstyk, a grad student teammate whose own grandfather died of PD ten years ago, said of the initial results:
That was really different from what we expected, seeing patients' reactions and hearing their thoughts, how much support and interest they had. A lot of them wanted to be involved in the process, they wanted to sign up for clinical trials, they wanted to know if they could get it, they wanted to know whatever they could do to help us.

Ian Graham, another team member, said: 
I was expecting them [the volunteer PWPs] to be a little more apprehensive, but all of them were willing to try on the headset even in the early stages. One of the patients said that before the early trials, he slept maybe one hour a night. After he said he slept five nights in a row through the night.

Salimpour and his team obtained provisional design patents and want to begin the long process of gaining approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He summed up his team's work this way:
I think this kind of research is very valuable in terms of providing more flexibility for the patient. I know many don't like surgery and don't like the side effects of the medication. This may be very valuable in terms of reducing the amount of medication or prolonging the time before surgery.


Anna said...


Apologies for hitchhiking on this post, but here's a report I just read about a possible link between low Vitamin D levels and PD.

Thank you again for what you do.


Anna said...

Oops! Forgot the link. Here it is!