Researchers working on new treatment for depression, chronic pain

Promising new research opening possibilities

Can stimulating electrical activity in the brain help the millions of people who suffer from disorders like depression and chronic pain? Researchers who are studying the effects on humans say the results are very promising.

Electrical engineer Flavio Frohlich went from working with computers to something more complex.

“There’s a much more fascinating device out there and that’s the brain," shared Dr. Flavio Frohlich, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation at the UNC School of Medicine.

The professor says, similar to computers, our body generates electrical signals.

“The goal is to understand the electric signaling, to understand what the brain is trying to tell us,” continued Frohlich.

Graduate student and doctoral candidate at UNC School of Medicine, Julianna Prim, is studying chronic pain in military personnel. She and Frohlich met and sparked an idea!

“Stimulate the brain with TACS, which is transcranial alternating current stimulation,” Prim explained.

Researchers conducted studies using a weak alternating electrical current.

“We’re attaching electrodes to the scalp. We pass minute, tiny amounts of electricity through these electrodes,” said Frohlich.

Julianna demonstrates with a mock patient how the process works.

The patient is asked to relax while looking at a soothing image.

“There’s a very slight tingling at the back of my head, but it’s very subtle,” explained Chris Walker, a postdoctoral researcher at UNC School of Medicine.

In a pilot study of 20 participants, the results were very encouraging.

Prim told Ivanhoe, “We found that there was an increase in pain improvement compared to the placebo stimulation.”

Both believe this could lead to non-invasive treatments for different brain disorders.

“By adjusting the stimulation to match specific changes in those brains,” concluded Frohlich.

Giving millions of people suffering, hope.

The UNC researchers have submitted a grant to expand the chronic pain study to 120 patients to find out how long the effects last. The hope is the stimulation device would one day be available for patients to use at home. They also conducted a TACS study for depression and found 70 percent of participants reported improvement in symptoms. Studies on electrical brain stimulation for schizophrenia and lupus patients are about to get underway. For more information, go to www.carolinaneurostimulation.org or www.frohlichlab.org.