Researchers hope an electric current will stop people with the eating disorder bulimia from having the urge to binge-eat and then punish their bodies.

A study in PLOS One says sending an electrical current into the part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which some believe is involved in regulating behavior, reduced bulimic behavior in almost 40 people in a trial. It “suppressed the self-reported urge to binge-eat,” increased self-control and improved mood, according to the findings. The low current, sent into the brain through electrodes placed on the head, may be doing this by “normalising altered neural circuit activity.”

Read: Your Brain with an Eating Disorder

The researchers called for further trials to explore the electric treatment as an option for bulimia, which is now largely controlled with therapy. Although their short treatment period showed modest temporary results, they said, the effects of the electrical stimulation could accumulate over time and become more effective.

“A substantial proportion do not get better with talking therapies,” King’s College London said in a statement about their scientists’ findings. “There is a pressing need for new techniques and researchers are increasingly looking towards neuroscience-based technologies that could target the underlying neural basis of eating disorders, such as problems with reward processing or self-control.”

Although the idea of an electrical treatment may conjure up gruesome, outdated images of electroconvulsive therapy, with resisting patients strapped to tables as they are electrocuted, the kind of treatment the scientists used involves placing electrodes on the outside of a patient’s head to stimulate certain parts of the brain. Johns Hopkins Medicine describes it as “cheap, non-invasive, painless and safe,” with the most common side effect being “a slight itching or tingling on the scalp.” It has also been tested on patients with conditions other than bulimia, like depression, anxiety and Parkinson’s disease.

There are, however, more invasive forms of electrical-based therapies, like the experimental deep brain stimulation that has been tested on Parkinson’s patients and may soon see trials for Alzheimer’s patients. That treatment involves surgically implanting a device that will electrically stimulate certain parts of the brain and block problem signals the brain is sending.

In people with eating disorders, the brain may have issues with electrical signals as well. The PLOS One study notes that there is evidence they have “alterations in reward processing and self-regulatory control.” Indeed, a recent brain study showed that in those patients, their brains are able to override its own appetite signals — certain electrical signals through which different brain regions communicate with one another were moving in a direction opposite from how they were supposed to travel.

Source: Schmidt U, Kekic M, McClelland J, et al. Single-Session Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Temporarily Improves Symptoms, Mood, and Self-Regulatory Control in Bulimia Nervosa: A Randomised Controlled Trial. PLOS One. 2017.

See also:

Alzheimer’s and Electricity: Is Deep Brain Stimulation Ethical?

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