Deep brain stimulation, a type of therapy that delivers small pulses of electricity to the brain, has already been approved for use in movement disorders, but scientists are now also looking at it to improve memory, mental health and dozens of other conditions.
With DBS, surgeons implant a small wire in the brain. A separate device directs small pulses of electricity into the affected areas. Patients with Parkinson’s and essential tremor can use a remote to control the strength of the signals.
Now, researchers are studying brain stimulation for the treatment of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and OCD, as well as drug and alcohol addiction, obesity and chronic pain.
“Immediately after stimulation, we see change in brain activity, and we see improvement in symptoms,” said Flavio Frohlich, Ph.D., with the UNC School of Medicine. Frohlich is also the director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation. He and his colleagues use a technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation, a weak, alternating pulse.
“The beauty of the type of stimulation that we’re studying is, essentially, we’re learning to speak the language of the brain,” Frohlich said. “Meaning we can treat potentially different disease states by adjusting the stimulation to match the specific changes in those brains.”
In a new study of seniors, researchers at Boston University say participants who received low-dose electrical pulses through the scalp for four days did better on memory tests, and those benefits lasted at least a month. The Boston researchers say the results of their study are early but could have big implications for treating patients with memory and cognition problems.
There are currently more than 384 clinical trials of brain stimulation listed on the government trial website covering more than two dozen conditions.