Electrical Impulses May Be The Best Way to Treat Mental Illnesses

Aditi Kaveti ’23

Figure 1: Stereoelectroencephalography determines where electrical impulses should be delivered based on brain activity. 

Mental illnesses span a wide range of health conditions, including disorders that affect one’s mood, thinking, and behavior. Some severe cases of these conditions may be medication-resistant. For example, some patients with epilepsy are known to have significant anxiety associated with the condition that cannot be treated with medication. A study recently published in Nature Biomedical Engineering addresses medication-resistant disorders by studying the intersection of artificial intelligence and targeted electrical brain stimulation to improve human brain function. Dr. Alik Widge, an assistant professor of psychiatry, collaborated with Dr. Sydney Cash and Dr. Darin Dougherty at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to study the impaired parts of the brain that are found in most patients with mental illnesses, using data from epilepsy research and clinical brain stimulation. 

The data was obtained from a study conducted at MGH that examined 12 patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. Stereoelectroencephalography (SEEG) was conducted on these patients by placing electrodes in targeted brain areas to monitor the precise location of brain activity and determine where seizures originate. The team was able to use this data to identify the internal capsule as the brain region that is responsible for cognitive control, and impaired in most patients with mental illnesses. They developed an algorithmic system that was able to read brain activity, similar to an SEEG, and apply a small burst of electrical stimulation to boost cognitive function in the part of the brain that was experiencing difficulty. They found that when the internal capsule was stimulated with a small amount of electrical energy, the patients’ mental function was improved. The subjects of this study even reported that their anxiety decreased because they now had the ability to shift their thoughts away from what was causing distress. 

These findings are revolutionary as they have a significant impact on how mental illnesses may be treated in the near future. Today, they are treated symptomatically, but this can result in a large number of additional side effects. Using this study, researchers may be able to develop a way to treat mental illnesses by delivering small amounts of electrical stimulation and giving patients the ability to have larger agency over their minds, dramatically changing the way this type of medical care is practiced. The team plans to move forward with these findings and begin clinical trials to ensure the effectiveness of electrical stimulation to better the lives and treatments of patients that struggle with medication-resistant mental illnesses.

References:

  1. I. Basu, et al. Closed-loop enhancement and neural decoding of cognitive control in humans. Nat Biomed Eng, (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41551-021-00804-y.
  2. Image retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EEG_recording.jpg

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