Using electrical stimulation to cure diseases of the brain is gaining traction. Stimulation protocols that are based on individual activity patterns could yield greater success in the future.
The brain is an orchestra of electricity. Think of each neuron as a teeny, tiny clarinet. Energy flows in and through, blasting notes to its neighbors and setting them each on their own electric dance. The soiree is more than madness, the result far from chaos. Its outcome is communication, synchronicity, and thought itself. Unfortunately, the symphonies of our brains don’t always operate as desired. Mental illnesses are as complex as the brains that create them. Diseases of the brain are equally challenging to untangle. Both are devastating.
Major depression is on the rise. Over 21 percent of adults in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders every year. As medical advancement allows people to live longer lives, Alzheimer’s is hitting more senior citizens. Parkinson’s, Stroke, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Huntington’s continue to leave people struggling for answers.
Trying to unlock the secret to each of these illnesses and diseases is wrought with difficulty. The moving parts are too many, the pieces too small, the pathways too tangled to tease apart. Understanding all the cells, proteins, molecules, and interactions that together weave the story of the brain is a herculean task and would be a technological feat in itself. But with each individual brain distinct from the other with its own set of pathways and behaviors, this may be impossible or at least prohibitively expensive. Maybe curing our brains doesn’t require such a thorough understanding of its individual components.
Taking a systems level approach
What if we don’t need to understand every interaction? What if we can skip the pathways and individual neurons and concentrate on the whole instead of its pieces? Perhaps then we can make headway in terms of alleviating the suffering of the many people living with brain-originating disabilities. Though understanding the specific mechanisms of why treatments work is a meritorious goal, simply having a treatment that works is a grand leap in the right direction.
One way to focus on the whole instead of its pieces is to speak in the currency of the brain and see if we can’t reset the system. If the brain is an orchestra of electricity with teeny, tiny clarinets setting off mass eruptions of electric movement, maybe external participation can impact results.
Electric stimulation of the brain is hardly a new concept. Luigi Galvani discovered that electricity stimulated nerves and muscles in the 1780s (for a deeper history read Decoding the Electric Brain). From there the idea that electricity might help to cure ailments of the brain was within reason. Of course, our knowledge and finesse has matured greatly since then. Each contributing researcher and medical practitioner has added discovery upon discovery, breakthrough upon breakthrough.
We still have little understanding of the specific mechanisms at work, but today we are using electrical stimulation to successfully tackle illnesses and diseases of the brain.
Stimulating pathways within the brain
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been used to treat conditions as diverse as Parkinsons, Pain and Depression with real success. DBS has relieved symptoms of tremor and muscle stiffness in patients with Parkinson’s and has had success for treatment-resistant depression patients, with researchers showing it to be 71 percent more effective than sham treatments. DBS typically targets major nerve pathways within the brain stimulating connections between distinct regions. This is, however, a highly invasive procedure that involves brain surgery to implant a small battery operated stimulating device within the brain called an implantable pulse generator and is usually a last resort therapy.
Stimulating from the outside
Beyond major pathways however, there are other non-invasive ways of stimulating the brain such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), alternating current stimulation (ACS) and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). These methods manipulate the overall electrical field of the brain in some way either by external electrical stimulation through electrodes placed on the scalp or by applying a magnetic field. A review of a number of studies where stimulation was used to counter the effects of Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment found a reasonable success. So has the effects of these techniques on Stroke. It seems that tackling the problem with the brain’s own currency – electricity – may be a way to treat a number of brain-related illnesses and disorders, even without necessarily understanding the mechanisms at work. However, with all methods of stimulation, the results are not always consistent across patients. This likely depends on the variability in brain activity among individuals and how this syncs with the stimulation patterns that are used.
Stimulation for everyday life
The success of brain stimulation has led entrepreneurs to wonder if hijacking the electric dance of our minds might be useful to the everyday consumer. What if a quick, safe machine zap could put you to sleep? What if it could make you the life of the party? Help you study for a tough exam? Could our understanding of the human brain linked with modern technology help people to become smarter, more confident, better versions of themselves?
Thync, a Silicon Valley start-up that created quite a buzz with its promise of biohacking your mind, Thync devices feature two settings: Deep Relax to “let go of anxious feelings and slow down your thoughts” and Deep Sleep to “reach a calm, peaceful state and improve sleep.”
Does it work?
The company has a peer-reviewed paper on their side, but the jury is still out. The paper, as noted by the New Atlas, is based on Thync’s first design, which placed an electrode on the temple. The new design is meant to be worn only on the back of the neck. Reviews of the product have been mixed. Some people find it effect, others find it underwhelming while some report that it made them clammy or induced various other kinds of unpleasant. New Scientist’s Natalie Salmanowitz echos the feeling of many users: “the revolution will be mild.”
That there might be a revolution at all, however, is something to get excited about. If eventually we were able to read individual brain activity with EEG and stimulate in a manner that was individually tailored rather than one stimulus fits all, this could change things profoundly.