Investigating the brain’s capacity for repair

In an operating room, a surgeon is performing surgery on a patient.
Pushing the boundaries of neuroscience

Dr. Adam Sachs uses virtual reality in the operating room to see if patients with Parkinson’s disease can learn to control their brains using conscious thought.

The patient, awake on the operating room table, is wearing 3D goggles that look like they belong in an arcade.

“Are you ready to give it a try?” asks Dr. Adam Sachs, a neuroscientist at the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute and a neurosurgeon at The Ottawa Hospital.

The patient is one of 100,000 Canadians and 10 million people worldwide who have Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder that affects the brain networks involved in coordinating our movements.

The patient is half-way through an eight-hour surgical procedure known as deep brain stimulation, an operation that Dr. Sachs has been performing in Ottawa for two years. It involves implanting an electrode in the brain that will deliver electrical pulses to help control tremors and other symptoms. For many patients, it helps relieve symptoms that do not respond to medication. But it’s not a cure, and over time, it can become less effective.

That’s why Dr. Sachs will take 30 minutes in the middle of the operation to explore a new frontier in neuroscience. In the 3D goggles, the patient sees a blue sphere – and will be asked to transform it using only his mind.

“Try and use your thoughts to see if you can get it to change colour,” instructs post-doctoral fellow Dr. Chadwick Boulay. “Some people think about fluid movement, like moving their arm, but you can try whatever you like to see what works for you.”

A large computer screen shows the team what the patient is seeing in the goggles, as well as a read-out of his brain activity. Remarkably, at times the patient is able to use his thoughts to make the sphere change colour.

“We are trying to use the virtual reality world to train people to control their brain in real time,” explains Dr. Sachs.

The experiment can only be done during surgery because the microelectrodes Dr. Sachs has implanted as part of the operation are measuring exactly what is happening in the regions of brain implicated in Parkinson’s disease. The goal is to see if conscious thoughts can affect the abnormal patterns of electrical activity associated with the disease. The work could lead to new therapies that involve virtual reality or other technologies.

 “I’m inspired by my patients,” says Dr. Sachs.  “They have a debilitating illness and the surgery is long and tiring. This research is in the very early stages and it probably won’t help them. But they are willing to do this because it might help patients in the future.”

The Brain and Mind Research Institute brings together top researchers and clinicians, with the goal of developing new therapies. Your gift will support research that will improve the lives of patients with Parkinson’s and other diseases.

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