Barrow receives $10 million gift for brain-therapy center

March 9, 2011

By hammersmith

Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center will devote a $10.1 million gift toward creation of the Barrow Center for Neuromodulation. Along with other advanced techniques, the Center will employ “deep-brain stimulation” to study and treat neurological and behavioral conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, depression, epilepsy, autism, and chronic pain.

The donation to Barrow–one of the largest philanthropic contributions ever to an Arizona hospital–came from Marian H. Rochelle, whose late husband was treated for Alzheimer’s disease at Barrow. Rochelle said that she hopes other benefactors will follow her lead.

“This is truly a gem among neuroscience centers,” Rochelle said. “Each of us can play a role in making the new Barrow Center for Neuromodulation a beacon of hope for people with devastating neurological disorders.”

“This gift will advance our understanding of the brain’s pathways and their abnormal connections in patients who have movement and psychiatric disorders,” said Robert Spetzler, Barrow’s director.

Deep-brain stimulation (DBS) has been used for a number of years in patients with Parkinson’s disease. In Arizona, Mayo Clinic and Banner Health regularly employ the technique; Barrow currently performs around 75 surgeries per year to implant a DBS device. In the surgery, an electrode is implanted deep in a portion of the brain affected by the disorder; a pacemaker then sends specially calibrated electrical signals to that location. Although the therapy does not cure Parkinson’s patients, it has a record of moderating certain symptoms, and researchers believe it can improve other patients’ conditions as well.

“There exists the tantalizing prospect that with deep-brain stimulation these abnormal pathways can be made to function in a more normal manner,” Dr. Spetzler said. “This has the potential to make a dramatic difference in the lives of these patients.”

The Center for Neuromodulation will be directed by Francisco Ponce, a neurosurgeon who trained at Barrow and the University of Toronto.

“This is one of the most exciting and promising areas of modern medicine. Through neuromodulation, we can improve and restore function in patients in a manner that is reversible, adjustable, and safe,” Dr. Ponce said.

One of the Center’s first expansions of therapy beyond Parkinson’s will prescribe DBS to patients with treatment-resistant depression. 

“Depression is the greatest disability in the world,” Dr. Spetzler said in an interview with 3TV News. “If you can find that sadness center of the brain and alter that abnormal function of the brain with that electrical stimulation, you can turn patients’ lives around.”

The use of DBS to treat depression is presently available only in clinical trials at a few medical centers.

“The early results are encouraging,” said Donald Malone, who is leading a trial at Cleveland Clinic, in the Arizona Republic. “We have encouraging pilot data, but it remains investigational.”

Barrow is currently recruiting patients for its own clinical trial, which is led by neuropsychologist Leslie Baxter. Trial participants–both nondepressed and depressed patients–will undergo a functional MRI scan while they view photos of sad and tragic scenes. Via the MRI scan, Dr. Baxter’s researchers will be able to identify precisely where in patients’ brains response to the depressing scenes is occuring.

 “There are a lot of questions that have to be answered,” Dr. Spetzler acknowledged in the 3TV News interview. “It’s going to be a collaborative research process, involving big institutions like Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute; we’re going to draw the expertise from the various collaborators we have in Arizona and all concentrate on getting this problem resolved.”

Beyond DBS, the Center will investigate new ways of using ultrasound and transcranial magnetic stimulation to benefit patients with brain disorders. In these projects–particularly intriguing because they do not require surgical entry through the patient’s skull–Barrow is likewise collaborating with partners that include TGen and ASU.

For more information:

Barrow celebrates one of largest single donations to an Arizona hospital,”, 03/08/2011

Barrow Neurological Institute to study the use of deep-brain stimulation for patients with depression,” Arizona Republic, 03/07/2011

St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute Receives Largest Donation in History of Arizona,” St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center news release, 03/07/2011

Barrow Researcher Launches Brain Mapping Clinical Trial for Depression,” St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center news release, 03/07/2011