Targeting the Brain

We may not be talking about rocket science, but deep brain simulation (DBS) is definitely brain surgery and it’s incredibly invasive. It’s the last hope of many people with Parkinson’s disease. It’s both a scary proposition and a beacon of hope.

Renewed hope

That’s why it’s good news that two recent studies in the journal Nature Medicine show that electrical simulation can address brain function with surprising speed and precision. Scientists are now looking at DBS techniques for purposes other than Parkinson’s disease, including depression and anxiety. The more light that is shining on DBS, the better the outcome.

As reported in the February 28, 2021 edition of the New York Times Magazine, a team from the University of California, San Francisco, mapped a patient’s brain activity and programmed electrodes to detect when the patient was depressed. This works similar to how a pacemaker acts on the heart. When the patient is fine, the electrodes do nothing; when she’s depressed, they deliver stimulation in response.

In the second study out of Boston University, researchers used a noninvasive technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation to deliver pulses. Their goal was to reduce obsessive-compulsive behaviors. By using personalized brain stimulation, they reduced the number of these behaviors by 30% over three months.

Psychiatrists won’t be prescribing DBS any time soon, but this research offers news ways to think about treating brain disorders. It’s more evidence that “our brains are plastic,” according to one of the Boston researchers, “and we can rewire the brain.” Maybe in the not-so-very-distant-future, these less-invasive transcranial techniques will assist targeted brain treatments to stop Parkinson’s disease from advancing. Take that, rocket science.

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