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Is Brain Stimulation the Answer to Severe Mental Illnesses?

MERGING artificial intelligence with targeted electrical brain stimulation has been found to improve certain human brain functions, particularly those related to self-control and mental flexibility. This research comes from a study carried out at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, involving 12 patients set to undergo brain surgery for epilepsy. This surgical procedure involves the insertion of hundreds of tiny electrodes in the brain to record neurological activity and determine where their seizures stem from. 

Alik Widge, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and member of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, led this study, alongside Sydney Cash of Massachusetts General Hospital, an expert in epilepsy, and Darin Dougherty, MD, an expert in clinical brain stimulation. In this study, researchers identified a region of the brain that has been found to improve a patient’s mental function following its stimulation with electrical impulses. This region is known as the internal capsule and plays a role in cognitive control, which is often compromised in mental illnesses. Widge explained: “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.” 

Researchers analysed patients’ cognitive control using tailored algorithms that measured both the individuals’ actions and their brain activity. “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 clarified. Patients also noted that their anxiety was improved following this cognitive-enhancing boost of stimulation, presenting a case for the use of this treatment in patients with severe anxiety.  

Future research will see this study progress into clinical trials, which could see the quick implementation of this therapy into practice. “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 concluded.