Bladder Pacemaker, Part 3 - Stimulates bladder and brain

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Susan Valot/KPCC

The bladder pacemaker (right) is shown in relation to a pen. It is implanted in the buttocks and connected to a series of electrodes that are attached to the spine near nerves that go to the bladder.

A small device known as a “bladder pacemaker” is helping out people who can’t go to the bathroom, or who have the urge to go too often. The implant regulates the bladder with electrical stimulation. But in this third installment of a series about the device, we find out that how it works is still a bit of a puzzle to researchers.

Dr. Larissa Rodriguez is an associate professor of urology at UCLA. For about a decade, she’s been implanting bladder pacemakers.

The small device is implanted near nerves in the lower back along the nerve highway that connects the brain to the bladder.

Rodriguez says about 70 percent of her patients who get a bladder pacemaker see improvement, but she says doctors still aren’t exactly sure how it works.

"It doesn’t seem to work in one way or another to either stop them from going and making them go," Rodriguez says. "It seems to be a modulation of the nerves that happen on many levels, including the brain. So we’re trying to figure [it] out. It seems to relax the pelvic floor peripherally. And the pelvic floor is involved in both the bowel and bladder. But it also appears to have changes in the brain centrally, where the function of these organs get modulated."

Rodriguez says PET scans of people with bladder pacemakers found that the part of the brain connected to the central nervous system lit up, even when the person couldn’t tell the pacemaker was on.

Tomorrow, in the final installment in this series, we'll meet someone who got a bladder pacemaker and has seen the difference it makes.

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