Electrifying Solution to Childhood Learning Disorders?
Brain stimulation therapy shows promise, but much more work and study needed
Your child is acting out in school and the teacher suspects he’s got attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He can’t sit still, is constantly distracted, and starts arguments almost daily with classmates. There are medications for this, but you worry about side effects. You don’t want to solve his attention problem just to give him insomnia or mood problems.
“Parents, please give us more time.”
If some experiments with electric nodes bear fruit in the future, however, you won’t have to: Researchers transmitting electricity into patients’ brains have made measurable — and drug-free — reductions in symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity, depression, and other psychiatric issues.
It’s a procedure called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Weak electric currents therapeutically stimulate parts of the brain or slow hyperactive parts down.
“It’s applying electrical currents to the scalp to modify brain activity,” said Flavio Frohlich, assistant professor in the University of North Carolina’s Department of Psychiatry. “I truly believe these procedures can change the brain in meaningful ways, and that they can be a powerful intervention. They deserve more study.”
Brain Stimulation is Nothing New
Doctors have been using electricity for psychiatric purposes for more than 150 years. The infamous “electro-shock” therapies of 20th century sanitariums are a case in point. Today’s tDCS treatments use much lower voltages, though, so they are vastly safer and more comfortable.
“It’s all in the dosing. There are a lot of things that at high doses can be dangerous but at low doses are beneficial,” said Richard McKinley, a biomedical engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“It’s a promising tool, but I think it’s a bit too early to use it as a treatment. If we want to do it the right way, we should investigate it further,” said one neuroscientist.
McKinley and a colleague used tDCS “brain stimulation kits” on Air Force pilots in 2016 and then tested the pilots’ multitasking skills. After just one 30-minute tDCS session, pilots’ test results improved.
These treatments have shown promise in many nonmilitary studies as well. Children benefitted in several of these. Researchers in Calgary, Canada, found that children showed enhanced motor skills up to six weeks after receiving tDCS, and a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology in June 2016 reported that tDCS improved cognitive functioning in nine children diagnosed with ADHD.
A newer electrode therapy called “transcranial alternating current stimulation,” or tACS, delivers electric currents that modulate like brain waves. When brain tissue receives them, it interprets them as brain waves and responds accordingly.
“You’re trying to emulate the actual functional rhythm that the brain uses to communicate,” said Dennis Schutter, a neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “So with these stimulations, it is proposed that you could actually train the underlying tissue in the function that you want to improve.”
Home Kits Not Thoroughly Tested or Approved
Such discoveries have inspired private entrepreneurs to create tDCS kits for home use — but scientists cannot yet guarantee the kits will work as advertised. Schutter advises holding off on buying anything until science gives these kits more scrutiny.
“It’s a promising tool, but I think it’s a bit too early to use it as a treatment. If we want to do it the right way, we should investigate it further,” he said. He hopes that science can reach a firm conclusion on it in the next 10 to 15 years.
He’s especially leery of using it on kids. Children’s brains are still forming, and applying a brain-altering therapy like tACS or tDCS could disrupt their formation processes in irreparably harmful ways. “You could be interfering with a normal pathway of development. You might screw up something that may otherwise work out well in the long run,” Schutter said.
Other researchers share his concerns. Michael Nitsche, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the Leibniz Research Centre in Dortmund, Germany, contends the studies so far are just not rigorous enough. He noted that none of the published tDCS studies used more than 20 to 30 participants each, and few include any “placebo” group for baseline comparison. By contrast, clinical trials that pharmaceutical companies put new drugs through recruit 200 or more participants per study and always feature placebo groups.
“These smaller pilot studies are useful for looking at the potential of the electrical-stimulation technique, but if you want to treat patients on a routine basis, then you need these larger clinical trials,” said Nitsche.
In the meantime, Frohlich urges consumers not to buy themselves or their kids any tDCS units just yet. Psychiatric problems — in children or in adults — are still best left for now to the care of psychiatrists, not to electric nodes.
“As a parent myself, I fully understand the suffering and emotional costs to families of caring for children with special needs, and I think one of our prime obligations as researchers in this field is to develop treatments that will help,” said Frohlich. “My message to those parents regarding electrical stimulation is I understand you. But we’re not there yet. Please give us more time.”