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Ways to stimulate the brain

  • By Sanjay Akolkar

Brain stimulation therapy might be much more complicated than the name itself. Rather than jumping to conclusions or assumptions as to what exactly this means, let’s try and find out what does brain stimulation therapy actually mean.

According to the Columbia Psychiatry Clinical Services, “Brain Stimulation Therapy” consists of a new discipline in Psychiatry which focuses more on the use of magnetic therapy and electrical energy to improve the functionality of your brain. The stimulation technique is used for both researches as well as in major psychiatric disorders that do not necessarily respond to the conventional medical treatments, which generally either consists of medication or psychotherapy.

Stimulation with electrical or magnetic energy interacts with the neurons (an electrically excitable cell that processes information through electrical and chemical signals) causing them to release some chemical called the neurotransmitters and possibly also helps in forming more healthy connection between the nerve cells. Consistent and repeated stimulation can modulate, or at the least, reset some of the specific regions of the brain to exert a certain amount of specific change. Brain stimulation therapy is one such flexible form of treatment, which can be used in both the traditional as well as the modern approaches of applying energy, either by itself or with the help of medications. Since brain is the most important organ of our body, one must be careful not to try these forms of treatment without careful thoughts and consultation.

There are a number of people who have benefited from brain stimulation therapy. We must now look into who can have brain stimulation therapy and what are the risks involved.

Treatments for brain stimulation therapy are mostly designed for people who show a consistent intolerance or resistance towards medications. While currently, there are almost all forms of medications and therapies available for psychiatric disorders, there are a substantial number of people who are intolerant to those forms of treatments. For example, depression is one such form of disorder, which if not treated in the given time frame, can turn lethal. Hence, brain stimulation therapy is the best form of treatment available, as with conventional forms of treatment there is also the risk of side effect. People with chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease (a neurodegenerative disease with symptoms such as rigidity, tremors, and instability) and Tourette’s syndrome, which are more commonly resistant to medication, can also benefit from deep brain stimulation (a surgical procedure in which a brain pacemaker is inserted in the brain). Now as we know who can benefit from brain stimulation therapy, let’s take a look at the other forms of treatment involved in brain stimulation therapy:

  • Electroconvulsive Therapy: Introduced in 1938, ECT is generally considered when a patient’s illness does not seem to improve even after going for other treatments; it is generally used to treat severe forms of depressions, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It may also be used in case of severe illnesses such as catatonia. ECT is generally given about three times a week. Electrodes are placed on specific locations through which the electrical current passes and a small seizure is induced, which usually lasts for a minute. The side effects of ECT may include muscle aches, severe headaches, and upset stomach.Some people may also have short-term memory lapses. The consortium for research in ECT study has stated that nearly 86% of people who underwent ECT are now in remission.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation: Works through a device that is planted under the skin that sends electrical impulses through the left vagus nerve. People with epilepsy are more commonly treated with VNS, but later, researchers discovered that it was also effective in mood swings, especially during depression. A vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) is surgically inserted in the upper left side of the chest. The device generally operates for 10 years after which it needs to be replaced. Though long-term side effects are unknown,there are a host of side effects which are recurrent. The side effects include voice changes, cough, difficultyin breathing, difficulty in swallowing, neck pain, and tingling sensation in the area where the device is implanted.
  • Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (RTMS): Developed in 1985, researched and used more in the 1990s,a typical RTMS session lasts for 30 to 60 minwhere an electromagnetic coil is held against the forehead and pulses are transmitted through the coil. Short currents stimulate the nerve cells and target the specific region. There might be a feeling of tapping on the forehead where the pulses are administered. Side effects include discomfort, contraction of jaw and scalp muscles, mild headaches, and seizures.
  • Magnetic Seizure Therapy: It is a combination of ECT and RTMS; it borrows certain aspects from both these forms. MST tries to induce a seizure-like ECT, a magnetic pulse is used to stimulate instead of an electricity to stimulate a precise target on the brain. Since the pulse is given at a higher frequency rate, it is necessary to administer anesthesia, and a muscle relaxant may also be given. The main goal of MST is to retain the effectiveness of ECT all the while reducing the cognitive side effects to it. Since MST is still in a nascent stage, there have been very few reported side effects some of those may include shorter seizures.

Now, as we know what brain stimulation therapy is, we must also remember to consult the doctor to know about the various types of treatments, the durations, and the medications available and also understand which form of treatment would suit one best and gather information and awareness regarding the same.