Pacemakers for the brain, and cell phones for the homeless

An engineer of MEDTECH company checks the 'ROSA' robot aimed at helping surgeons during brain operations on October 19, 2012. Researchers in Baltimore have just begun experimenting with a kind of pacemaker for the brain.

A small battery, some wires and a trickle of current, plus a couple of holes drilled into the skull: Is it possible this list of items could keep some of the memory loss and dementia of Alzheimer's disease at bay? Researchers in Baltimore have just begun experimenting with a kind of pacemaker for the brain. One patient has the system in already. 

Actually we did the second surgery last Tuesday so we've done two,” says Dr. Paul Rosenberg, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “The really cool part is they saw brain metabolism improve over that year. Saw what looked like a change for the better.

Rosenberg's leading the study there which eventually will wire up 40 patients. It's building on data Rosenberg's colleague gathered in Canada, which showed some memory improvement, especially in people with early stages of Alzheimer's. And a brain metabolism improvement could mean a brain that is healthier and more active.

The neurons may be healthier," he says. "Metabolism is the rate that you take up fuel, you take up sugar into the brain.  And they're doing it more rapidly with the brain stimulation.  We think that's good.  Notice my caution: we think that's good.” 

Wires to the brain have already been used to treat thousands of people suffering the tremors of Parkinson's.


Meanwhile, it’s gotten to the point that life in America may be practically impossible without a phone.

You may have heard of Lifeline--a federally funded program that helps bring telephone landlines to low income people at little or no cost. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, a mobile version of this may be coming to a huge market--California--to bring super-cheap cell phones to homeless people, among others.

I'd be able to get work a lot easier because people would be able to call me," says Shannon Arakaki. “And it would be people saying "this number is temporarily out of service.

Arakaki’s in temporary housing in San Francisco that has been provided with the help of the Red Cross. She's been without a permanent place to live for a long time. She says she makes money from odd jobs and collecting scrap metal, but it's not enough to pay a monthly phone bill. Does Arakaki think one of these Lifeline mobile phones could change that? Yes.

"If I had a cell phone I could carry it around with me," she says. "A landline I've got to sit next to it and park myself.  You know that's really not cost effective, you know what I mean? You're out and about and doing your thing and you get a call for a job and you can go do it.  Where if it's at home you have to go home and hit the answering machine."

Jennifer Friedenbach, who runs the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, says it's also about more than just being reachable for job opportunities.

"For homeless people who are experiencing an emergency, they can call 911, having a cell phone is critical," says Friedenbach. "They can keep in contact with family members. Keep in contact with social workers that are hooking them up with housing. It's incredibly important and it's going to be a phenomenal benefit."

Thirty-six states have this, mainly through Assurance Wireless a division of Sprint.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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