US researchers optimise human mental function with targeted brain stimulation

November 7, 2021
US researchers optimise human mental function with targeted brain stimulation

Specific human brain functions linked to mental illness, including self-control and mental flexibility, can be enhanced using targeted electrical brain stimulation and artificial intelligence (AI). In studying patients with epilepsy at Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School (U of M Medical School) identified a brain region, or the “internal capsule,” responsible for cognitive control – the process of shifting from one thought pattern or behaviour to another. Researchers saw that cognitive control and overall mental function was improved in patients after stimulation with small bursts of electrical energy.

Closed loop AI algorithms were developed to track patients’ cognitive control abilities post-stimulation, both from their actions and directly from their brain activity. In particular, this controlled method provided boosts of stimulation whenever the patients were doing worse on a laboratory test of cognitive control and proved twice more effective than random stimulation.

“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,” explained Dr. Alik Widge, an assistant professor of psychiatry and member of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction at the U of M Medical School.

“The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone is pedaling but having difficulty, the bike senses it and augments it. We’ve made the equivalent of that for human mental function.”

Some of the patients who had significant anxiety in addition to their epilepsy also reported lower instances of distress after the cognitive-enhancing stimulation; thus, suggesting cognitive-enhancing stimulation could be used to treat patients with severe and medication-resistant anxiety, depression, or other disorders.

Patients suffering from mental illnesses oft lack the full cognitive control of the internal capsule. “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,” Dr. Widge said.

The researchers are currently preparing for clinical trials for deep brain stimulation. Once a trial is formally approved, the translation of this care to current medical practice could be rapid, Dr. Widge added.

Read: Gut microbiome signatures associated with common mental health disorders

Category: Education, Features

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