Saturday, June 3, 2017

Electric zaps bring brain-dead people back to life for a week

Via by Mia De Graaf

Scientists have successfully re-awoken coma patients so they can communicate with their family by 'zapping' their brain with a low-intensity current.

Two people in a vegetative state, and another 13 in a minimally-conscious coma, were able to show new signs of awareness after receiving brain stimulation, New Scientist reported.

The effect lasted for up to a week, according to researchers at the University of Liege in Belgium.

The breakthrough study could be a huge step for families of people in a coma who show signs of awareness but cannot speak or move their muscles.

Experts say the method could also be developed to help out-patients with communication disorders who are living at home.

In the study, patients underwent a procedure called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) which uses electrodes placed on the head to stimulate targeted brain regions.

It is hardly the first time this method has been tested in a scientific study.

In fact, scores of studies have looked at making personal tDCS headsets for people to have at home, giving themselves occasional 'zaps' to boost their brain function.

But its use for coma patients is a new frontier.

In the study, a team led by neurologist Aurore Thibaut placed the headsets over the patients' prefrontal cortex, the area which controls consciousness.

Within two hours of receiving one 'zap', two of the patients showed signs of responsiveness by moving parts of their bodies.

Wanting to test it further, the team then started a second trial with 16 new brain damaged patients, who had not been able to communicate for at least three months.

They stimulated half of the patients' brains for 20 minutes a day, five days in a row. The other half were given a 'dummy' treatment - stimulation at such a low frequency that it had no effect.

By the end of the week, two patients were able to answer questions by moving parts of their bodies. Another nine showed signs of awareness, while the group without brain stimulation saw no changes.

Dr Thibaut told the New Scientist that they are pushing ahead with tests - but cautiously, given the lack of research on the long-term repercussions.

'You can find similar devices online, but we don't know the long-term effects yet,' she says.

'We need to see what happens when we use it for perhaps five hours a day, or what happens if we apply it daily for three months. We need to be really careful.'

It is not yet known whether the electrical currents, when applied to the scalp, reach further than the parts of the brain being targeted.

If the currents do reach further they may alter brain functions that did not need to be changed.

'We don't know how the stimulation of one brain region affects the surrounding, unstimulated regions,' Roy Hamilton, MD, MS, an assistant professor of Neurology and director of the Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation at University of Pennsylvania told Daily Mail Online last year.

'Stimulating one region could improve one's ability to perform one task but hurt the ability to perform another.'

In addition, what a conscious person is doing during tDCS - reading a book, watching TV, sleeping - can change its effects. Which activity is best to achieve a certain change in brain function is not yet known.

Professionals have not performed tDCS at the frequency levels some home users experiment with, such as stimulating daily for months or longer.

Small changes in the devices settings, including the current amplitude, length of stimulation and placement of electrodes can have unexpected effects.

Up to 30 percent of experimental subjects respond with radically different changes in brain activity to the majority.

Factors such as gender, handedness, hormones, medication, etc. could impact and potentially reverse a given tDCS effect.

Most research is conducted for the purpose of treating disease, with the goal of alleviating symptoms, with a detailed disclosure or risks as required of studies of human research subjects.

The level of risk is quite different for healthy subjects performing tDCS at home.


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