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A new clinical trial has tested the ability of a little-studied, noninvasive brain stimulation technique to treat the symptoms of major depression. The results, so far, have been more than promising.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine in Chapel Hill have recently conducted a double-blind pilot clinical study testing a type of electrical brain stimulation therapy called “transcranial alternating current stimulation” (tACS) in people with major depression.
Electrical brain stimulation does not constitute a new approach in the treatment of depression, but experts usually turn to transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), which sends low direct electrical currents into the nervous system through electrodes that attach to a person’s head.
Although this type of therapy has shown some promise, the team from UNC notes that the technique is not consistently effective. That is why the researchers decided to try testing tACS instead.
Rather than sending a steady flow of electrical current into the brain like tDCS, tACS can instead tackle a person’s alpha oscillations, which are brain waves with a frequency of 8–12 Hertz. Specialists can measure these waves using an electroencephalogram.
In people with major depressive disorder, alpha oscillations are more asymmetrical, meaning that they are much more active in one part of the brain — the left frontal cortex — than in the other.
Frohlich and team found that the people in the main experimental group, who had received 10-Hertz tACS stimulation, did indeed have an equalizing decrease in the brain wave oscillations in the left frontal cortex.
At the 4-week mark, there was no statistically significant improvement in depression symptoms in this group compared with the other two groups.
However, the data that the team collected 2 weeks after the end of the clinical study told a completely different story. At this follow-up point, 77.8 percent of the participants in the experimental group saw a reduction in depression symptoms of at least 50 percent compared with their situation at baseline.
This positive effect, the researchers note, was significantly higher in the main therapy group than it was in participants from the other two groups.