New Research Raises Stimulating Possibilities for the Brain

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New Research Raises Stimulating Possibilities for the Brain

Scientists are making significant progress toward developing computers that are modeled on the human brain.  At the same time, a different line of research is targeting the opposite goal—to make it just as easy to reboot the human brain as it is to turn on a computer. 

The brain processes information in the form of electricity.  Dramatic new research, published in several peer-reviewed journals, indicates that stimulating the brain with electricity may provide effective treatments for schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Tourette syndrome, autism, depression, and other cognitive conditions.  Other studies show that it can boost creativity and memory.

Before we explore those studies, you’ll need a very brief overview of the technologies the researchers are using.  According to the website for the Brain Stimulation Program at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the new stimulation therapies “directly regulate brain function without producing the cognitive side-effects associated with ECT.”  ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is a proven, time-tested method for treating depression that hasn’t responded to medication, and Hopkins uses ECT to treat hundreds of patients every year.

The new treatments are:1

  • Deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves implanting electrodes in specific parts of the brain that are linked to the disease. The FDA has approved DBS as a treatment for essential tremor, Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, and chronic and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, while clinical trials are underway on patients with Alzheimer’s and depression.  But according to the journal Cell, the surgery to implant the electrodes exposes the patient to the risks including brain hemorrhage and infection.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) does not require surgery. Instead of implanting electrodes in the brain, the doctor places an electromagnetic induction coil on the patient’s head.  The coil sends short, painless magnetic pulses, which are exactly like those created by MRI machines, into the part of the brain that is associated with the patient’s disorder.

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