Parkinson's is a progressive neurological disease that effects one in 500 people in the UK. For some of those people, drug treatment has failed to control their symptoms.
At Middlesex, Professor Richard Bayford is developing what a layman might describe as a 'brain pacemaker' to help alleviate symptoms including severe tremoring.
He has adapted previous work using electrical impedence tomography (which measures the flow of ions through human physiology to make measurements of physiological problems) on the brain, to deal with deep brain stimulation, a technique for relieving symptoms for various neurological disorders.
"We have been working on the tremor associated with Parkinson's and we are expanding into epilepsy and Tourette's. It works by an electrode being placed in a specific area of the brain, forcing a small electrical potential into that region and in many cases it alleviates the tremor almost like a switch. It doesn't always work and it does have side effects which can include memory loss, depression and some other sensations," explains Professor Bayford. "It is putting in a stimulus like a pacemaker, though it's a bit more complex inside the brain. It's not fully understood how it works. It has proved to be effective but it still has limitations – we are working to eliminate those."
Professor Bayford's team have applied their biomodelling skills in conjunction with colleagues at University College London to work on a way of aiming or steering where the current goes once it leaves the end of the electrode.
"We are trying to make sure it goes in the right direction and not cause any side effects and are working with a number of deep brain stimulation surgeons at the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, and at King's College Hospital," he says. "It doesn't rectify the problem but it does change the quality of life – someone who couldn't pick up a drink without spilling it or other normal functional activities without tremoring have virtual restoration to normal functionality. If they turn the device off they go back. We are working on eliminating those side effects."
Professor Bayford's goal is to drive this technology forward, not least because it could provide low-cost treatment for life-impairing diseases. "We are trying to come up with new solutions at lower cost but cutting edge technology," he explains. "We are looking for solutions that will be able to be used by the larger population and not to the benefit of just the few who can afford it. We are focussing on technologies that will help more people and that has always been our ethos here at Middlesex, to come up with solutions that can be applied to 50,000 rather than two."