Treating mental illness with electricity combines old ideas with modern technology and understanding the brain – podcast

Mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and substance abuse are notoriously difficult to treat and often don’t respond to medication. But a new wave of treatments that stimulate the brain with electricity are showing promise for patients and in clinical trials. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we talk with three experts and a patient about the history of treatment for mental illness, how new technologies and a deeper understanding of the brain are leading to better treatments and of the direction the neuroscience of mental illness will take.

It’s not uncommon to hear people joke about how their “OCD” makes them want to straighten out a crooked picture or clean a spot on a counter, but for people actually living with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder , the reality is anything but funny.

Moksha Patel is a doctor and professor at the University of Colorado and suffers from severe OCD. “OCD was really taking over my life. The most obvious of my symptoms were not being able to use the public restroom, showering for an hour after using the restroom each time, and using chemical cleaners on my skin and mouth,” he says. After struggling for years, Patel finally reached out to Rachel Davis, a psychiatrist and researcher also at the University of Colorado. Davis suggested he might be a good candidate for deep brain stimulation as a treatment for his OCD.

“Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes into the deepest areas of the brain,” Davis explains. These electrodes then transfer small electrical currents into the brain itself, which a doctor and his patient try to regulate correctly. As Davis explains, “Basically, we’re looking to find the parameters where the patient feels their mood is better, their anxiety is lower, and they have more energy.

Deep brain stimulation works well for many patients and only started to gain mainstream attention in the last decade, but the ideas behind this treatment date back nearly 60 years. As Joseph Fins, a neuroethicist and professor of medicine at Wei Cornell Medical College, part of Cornell University in the United States, explains, it all started with a Spanish neuroscientist named Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado in 1964. a pacemaker deep cerebral, in the brain of a charging bull. And with an electric current controlled by radio frequency, he stopped the bull in its tracks.

While this work made the front page of The New York Times, Delgado made the front page of The New York Times, but he followed a horrible era of mental health treatment that involved lobotomies, electroconvulsive therapy, and many other interventions. destructive and deeply unethical. So when researchers began to discover drugs that could help people with mental illness, Fins said that “psychosurgery and these types of somatic therapies began to fall out of favor and physicians moved away from more physical interventions. “.

As modern neuroscience has provided insight into how the brain works and the stigma around physical treatments has faded, deep brain stimulation has had its second chance in the sun. And as technology improved, researchers like Jacinta O’Shea, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, began studying a non-invasive technique for stimulating the brain with electricity, called transcranial magnetic stimulation. .

“If you place a ferromagnetic coil on the scalp and pass a rapidly changing electric current through that coil, it will induce an electric field that passes painlessly through the skull and into the brain tissue below,” says O ‘Shea. And just like with deep brain stimulation, these electric fields can help people overcome mental health issues like depression.

Researchers still aren’t quite sure how deep brain stimulation or transcranial magnetic stimulation works, but with each new treatment, they’re learning more about the complex world of the brain and taking steps toward the treatments of tomorrow.

Listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly to find out more.

This episode was produced and written by Katie Flood and Daniel Merino, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. The executive producer was Gemma Ware. Our theme music is from Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up for The Conversation’s free daily email here. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

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