Brain Stimulation as Mental Health Treatment Needs More Study, Researchers Say

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Deep brain stimulation, in which an implanted device sends electrical pulses into the brain, could be better understood and used to treat more psychiatric disorders if it were further studied in animals, a group of researchers says.

Deep brain stimulation has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat severe forms of severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but it is also being investigated for treatment of depression, drug addiction and other psychiatric disorders.

For the most part, studies of the therapy were launched on people before it was tested in animals, leaving many questions unresolved, Dr. Clement Hamani, a neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues wrote today (July 11) in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Animal models of deep brain stimulation could help researchers figure out exactly how the therapy works to treat a particular condition, find new areas of the brain that stimulation should target, and test the effects of different doses and durations of treatment, Hamani said. Animals also could help researchers study the effects of medications on deep brain stimulation, as well as learn which addictions may be responsive to deep brain stimulation, Hamani said.

Some studies suggest deep brain stimulation can improve memory, but others suggest the opposite. Studies in animals may reveal why these findings have been mixed, Harmani said. For example, experiments done so far have shown that stimulation over a short period tends to result in memory deterioration in animals, while experiments carried out over several weeks show indications of improving memory, he said.

"These results suggest that the stimulation time frame may be important for behavioral results," the researchers wrote.

It's important to note that studies in animal models cannot replicate the complex human social environment that often plays a role in psychiatric diseases, nor can animals exactly mimic disease symptoms. Most animal models of post-traumatic stress disorder do not replicate human patients' symptoms well enough to be used in studies of deep brain stimulation, the researchers noted.

Still, animal models of depression, OCD and drug addiction appear to replicate the benefit of deep brain stimulation seen in people with these conditions, suggesting that animal models will be an important tool for accelerating the human application of deep brain stimulation, Hamani said.

Pass it on:  Studying deep brain stimulation in animal models will accelerate its application to people, researchers said.

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