Researchers increase human mental function with brain stimulation


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In a human pilot study, researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital show that it is possible to improve specific human brain functions related to self-control and mental flexibility by combining artificial intelligence with targeted electrical brain stimulation.

Alik Widge, MD, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and a member of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction at U of M Medical School, is a senior author of the research published in Nature biomedical technology. The results come from a human study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston among 12 patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy – a procedure that places hundreds of small electrodes throughout the brain to record its activity and identify where the seizures originated.

In this study, Widge collaborated with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Sydney Cash, MD, Ph.D., an expert in epilepsy research; and Darin Dougherty, MD, an expert in clinical brain stimulation. Together, they identified a brain region – the inner capsule – that improved patients’ mental function when stimulated with small amounts of electrical energy. That part of the brain is responsible for cognitive control – the process of switching from one thought pattern or behavior to another, which is weakened in most mental illnesses.

“An example might include a person with depression who just can’t get out of a ‘stuck’ negative thought. Because it’s so central to mental illness, it can be a powerful new way to treat these illnesses by finding a way to improve it on. “said Widge.

The team developed algorithms so that after stimulation, they could track patients’ cognitive control abilities, both from their actions and directly from their brain activity. The controller method provided stimulation boost when patients felt worse on a laboratory test of cognitive control.

“This system can read brain activity, ‘decode’ from it when a patient is having difficulty, and apply a small burst of electrical stimulation to the brain to increase them past this difficulty,” Widge said. “The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone steps on the pedals but has difficulty, the bike senses it and amplifies it. We have made it similar to that of human mental function.”

The study is the first to show that:

  • A specific human mental function associated with mental illness can be reliably improved by means of precisely targeted electrical stimulation;
  • There are specific lower parts of the inner capsule brain structure that are particularly effective for cognitive enhancement; and
  • A closed loop algorithm used as a controller was twice as effective as stimulating at random times.

Some of the patients had significant anxiety in addition to their epilepsy. When given the cognitive-enhancing stimulation, they reported that their anxiety got better because they were more able to move their thoughts away from their distress and focus on what they wanted. Widge says this suggests that this method can be used to treat patients with severe and medication-resistant anxiety, depression or other disorders.

“This could be a whole new approach to 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.”

The research team is now preparing for clinical trials. Because the goal of improving cognitive control has already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for deep brain stimulation, Widge says this research can be conducted with existing tools and devices – once a trial is formally approved – and the translation of this treatment into current medical practice could be fast.

“The wonderful thing about these results is that we are now able to conduct clinical trials to further demonstrate efficacy and then hopefully move on to help treatment-resistant patients who are in desperate need of further interventions to treat their diseases,” said Dougherty.

Researcher decodes the brain to help patients with mental illness

More information:
Alik Widge, Closed-loop enhancement and neural decoding of human cognitive control, Nature biomedical technology (2021). DOI: 10.1038 / s41551-021-00804-y.

Provided by the University of Minnesota Medical School

Citation: Researchers Boost Human Mental Function With Brain Stimulation (2021, November 1) Retrieved November 1, 2021 from

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