Researchers have found that brain stimulation may help treat a variety of severe mental illnesses. Neuroscientists discovered that combining artificial intelligence with targeted electrical brain stimulation could enhance cognition. The University of Minnesota Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital collaborated on the study.
The pilot human study included twelve patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. For the procedure, doctors place hundreds of microscopic electrodes throughout the brain to record activity. This data also helps them pinpoint the origin of seizures.
Alik Widge, MD, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and member of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction at the U of M Medical School, led the study. Widge collaborated with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Sydney Cash, MD, Ph.D., an expert in epilepsy research. Darin Dougherty, MD, a clinical brain stimulation expert, also participated in the study. The findings have been published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
The team identified a brain region called the internal capsule, which improved cognition when activated by small jolts of electricity. The internal capsule, located deep within the brain, serves as a communication pathway. It assists in communication between the cerebral cortex and brainstem areas, an essential component for physical movement and sensory processing.
This part of the brain also governs cognitive control, the process that enables a person to shift between thoughts and behaviors. In people with severe mental illnesses, such as depression, this part of the brain functions abnormally.
“An example might include a person with depression who just can’t get out of a ‘stuck’ negative thought. Because it is so central to mental illness, finding a way to improve it could be a powerful new way to treat those illnesses,” Widge said.
Neuroscientists Use Brain Stimulation to Increase Brain Function
For the study, the team developed algorithms to record patients’ cognitive control functions after stimulation. They tracked the data from both their actions and brain activity directly. This method provided stimulation boosts when the patients performed poorly on cognitive control lab tests.
“This system can read brain activity, ‘decode’ from that when a patient is having difficulty, and apply a small burst of electrical stimulation to the brain to boost them past that difficulty,” Widge said. “The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone’s pedaling but having difficulty, the bike senses it and augments it. We’ve made the equivalent of that for human mental function.”
The study marked the first ever to discover the following:
- Targeted brain stimulation can enhance brain function in areas linked to mental illness;
- Cognitive enhancement works particularly well in specific parts of the internal capsule brain structure; and
- A closed-loop algorithm used as a controller proved doubly effective compared to stimulating at random times.
Some patients in the study suffered from severe anxiety along with epilepsy. However, when researchers gave them brain stimulation, they reported a dramatic decrease in anxiety. Instead of focusing on their distress and anxious thoughts, they could shift their attention to what they wanted.
Widge says this method could help patients with severe anxiety, depression, and other disorders that don’t respond to traditional treatments. This research should provide hope for people with mental illnesses that severely impact their quality of life.
“This could be a totally new approach in treating mental illness. Instead of trying to suppress symptoms, we could give patients a tool that lets them take control of their own minds,” Widge said. “We could put them back in the driver’s seat and let them feel a new sense of agency.”
Future of Brain Stimulation
The next step in the research will involve clinical trials. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already approved the target for improving cognition using brain stimulation. This means that once a trial receives final approval, they can perform research using existing tools and devices, such as AI. So, translating the results into real-life medical practice could happen quickly.
“The wonderful thing about these findings is that we are now in a position to conduct clinical trials to further demonstrate the effectiveness and then hopefully move to help treatment-resistant patients who are in desperate need for additional interventions to treat their illnesses,” Dougherty said.