A new study from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital show it is possible to improve specific human brain functions related to self-control and mental flexibility by merging artificial intelligence with targeted electrical brain stimulation.
The study was published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering in November 2021. The research was conducted in 12 patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy, a procedure that places hundreds of tiny electrodes in the brain to record its activity and identify where seizures originate.
The senior author Alik Widge, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry collaborated with Sydney Cash, MD, PhD, an expert in epilepsy research and Darin Dougherty, MD, an expert in clinical brain stimulation. They identified a brain region, the internal capsule, that improved patients’ mental function when stimulated with small amounts of electrical energy. This part of the brain is responsible for cognitive control, the process of shifting from one thought pattern or behavior to another and that is impaired 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 is so central to mental illness, finding a way to improve it could be a powerful new way to treat those illnesses,” Widge said.
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 boosts of stimulation whenever the patients were doing worse on a laboratory test of cognitive control.
The study is the first to show that a specific human mental function linked to mental illness can be reliably enhanced using precisely targeted electrical stimulation.
In the study patients included also had anxiety in addition to the epilepsy diagnosis and when the procedure was performed they reported that their anxiety also got better, because they were more able to shift their thoughts away from their distress and focus on what they wanted. The researchers think that this method could be used to treat patients that have severe and medication resistant anxiety, depression and other mental disorders.
University of Minnesota Medical School. “Researchers boost human mental function with brain stimulation: Study indicates this method could be a new approach to treating a variety of severe mental illnesses.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 November 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/11/211101141757.htm>.