Brain stimulation is a relatively new way to treat various neurological conditions. It is typically an invasive procedure because electrodes need to be implanted in the brain. However, now scientists at UCL have found a way to use non-invasive brain stimulation to ease tremors typically found in conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative conditions, typically associated with aging, although there are many younger people suffering from it as well. We are not sure why some people develop Parkinson’s and there is no cure. Tremor – involuntary muscle contractions – is one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s and it can be devastating. Rhythmic contractions in the limbs can make it very difficult to eat, walk, dress and generally take care of yourself. Tremor is not an exclusive symptom to Parkinson’s – many other neurological conditions cause it as well.
Despite decades worth of research scientists still cannot say what is the underlying cause of the tremor. This makes it virtually impossible to find an effective drug treatment. Brain surgery sometimes helps, but it is very invasive and, therefore, unavailable in a large number of cases due to inherent risks. Scientists recently developed a way of calculating and tracking the phase of these rogue brain waves in real time, which then allows it to treat them with a non-invasive form of electrical stimulation.
Scientists invited 11 people with Essential Tremor Syndrome (ETS) to participate in this study. They were given the treatment by applying electrodes to the scalp, arranged to maximise the electric fields in the cerebellum. Brain stimulation was synchronized with specific phases of these aberrant oscillations. Scientists found that non-invasive brain stimulation significantly reduced the tremor, making its amplitude not as big. Dr Nir Grossman, one of the authors of the study, explained: “Tremors are caused by abnormal synchronisation in the motor areas of the brain but the biological processes underlying them are still not well understood. By targeting the temporal pattern of the brain’s abnormal synchronisation, we may be able to treat it, non-invasively, despite the limited knowledge of the precise causes”.
Of course, these are very early results from a study that just began. However, scientists are going to develop this idea further, hoping to create a widely available treatment for tremors. Hopefully, this study can lead to some sort of a device, which is relatively affordable and can be applied to a wide range of Parkinson’s patients.