What is non-invasive brain stimulation?
Essentially, non-invasive brain stimulation describes any nonsurgical method of targeting specific regions of the brain, with the aim of improving overall function and stabilizing mood. One of the most promising new directions in psychiatry, there are two distinct approaches to non-invasive brain stimulation: electrical stimulation and magnetic stimulation.
Transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) works by applying very weak electric currents to the scalp, engaging and restoring overall brain rhthyms.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) works by applying an insulated coil to the scalp, sending harmless magnetic pulses through the skull and into the brain (much in the same way an MRI does). This method is FDA-approved for the treatment of mood disorders, and has repeatedly been shown to be an effective way to stimulate localized sites in the brain.
These methods are painless, inexpensive, portable, and have few side effects.
What is the purpose of this study?
While tACS and TMS work in similar ways, they differ in terms of the changes they induce in the brain. And while the benefits of each method are fairly well-known, no one has yet combined them to maximize their strengths.
That’s where UNC’s Dr. Flavio Frohlich comes in.
In a multi-phase study spanning several years, Dr. Frohlich and his team are pursuing an innovative, potentially game-changing way of integrating tACS and TMS.
First, with an initial Foundation grant of $40,000 in 2013, Dr. Frohlich began an exploratory study to better understand the effects of electrical stimulation on the brain. This phase received an additional $2.2 million in NIH funding.
Next, with a Foundation grant of $200,000, they developed a mobile brain stimulator that would connect to a central database, enabling researchers to study the clinical effects of tACS from a nationwide set of data. Their initial findings were so promising, they were awarded a $2.4 million BRAIN initiative grant from the NIH.
In the third, current phase of the study—aided by a Foundation grant of $156,000—Dr. Frohlich and his team will attempt to capitalize on their findings to merge the benefits of tACS and TMS, with the ultimate aim of developing a revolutionary diagnostic tool for clinicians.
What does this mean for mental illness patients?
If successful, this method would immediately benefit patients since the use of TMS (without tACS) is FDA approved; Dr. Frohlich’s device would be FDA cleared and could be used on human patients. And by making an affordable, lightweight diagnostic tool available to researchers and clinicians across the country and around the world, more mental illness patients could received targeted treatment designed specifically for them, improving outcomes for sufferers of depression, anxiety, and a host of other psychiatric disorders.
Dr. Flavio Frohlich, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Cell Biology & Physiology, and Biomedical Engineering at UNC Chapel Hill. His laboratory studies cortical state dynamics and develops non-invasive brain stimulation approaches to treat neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia, autism, and depression, that are caused by pathological network dynamics. He is passionate about combining different methodological approaches to scientific problems and hopes to establish the field of network neuroscience.
- Frohlich Lab
- Mayo Clinic: Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation overview
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) journal: Transcranial alternating current stimulation
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