What once was called "electroshock therapy" in the sordid halls of psychiatric institutions appears ready to make its return, though the newest incarnation of brain stimulation therapy is much more refined and much more targeted. Researchers from The University of Western Australia suggest weak, sequential electromagnetic pulses can beneficially alter brain organization. In fact, results from their newest study demonstrate that using rTMS (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation) on mice helped to shift abnormal neural connections to more normal locations.

Types of Brain Stimulation

The most well-known of all brain stimulation therapies is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a medical procedure that involves using electric currents to trigger a brief seizure in a patient’s brain. While the details may be unsavory, ECT changes brain chemistry and in some cases immediately reverses symptoms of mental illness. For some suffering patients, it is the only thing that works when drugs or other treatments fail. However, ECT retains a certain stigma, due to memories of the earliest days when doctors used much too high a voltage, causing memory loss, injuries, and even fatalities. Much more dramatically, Ken Kesey’s beloved novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, showed how doctors and nurses in a mental hospital used electroshock treatments to control and abuse difficult patients.

Despite the stigma, many scientists believe the underlying idea of brain stimulation is sound, and champion its use, particularly in the form of TMS, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain and has been FDA-approved for the treatment of depression. To better understand what rTMS can do for the brain, Dr. Jennifer Rodger, senior author of the study, and her colleagues tested a low-intensity version of the therapy (LI-rTMS) on 22 mice born with abnormal brain organization as well as a control group of mice with normal brains.

Their research demonstrated how pulsed magnetic stimulation shifted abnormally located neural connections towards their correct locations in the brain. “Importantly, this structural reorganisation was not seen in the healthy brain or the appropriate connections in the abnormal mice, suggesting that the therapy could have minimal side effects in humans,” said Kalina Makowiecki, a doctoral student and lead author, in a press statement. “Our findings … have implications for how best to use it in humans to treat disease and improve brain function.”

Source: Makowiecki K, Harvey AR, Sherrard RM, Rodger J. Low-Intensity Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Improves Abnormal Visual Cortical Circuit Topography and Upregulates BDNF in Mice. Journal of Neuroscience. 2014.