Neuromodulation is an overarching term that describes a way of altering activity of the nervous system. This change in function can come via an electrical signal or a chemical agent, with the intent of normalizing brain activity. Many psychological disorders are a result of the brain functioning at either too high or too low of a level, so the goal of neuromodulation is to coax it back into a range of activity that is considered normal.
How does neuromodulation work?
Based on functional brain imaging such as PET scan image below, it is clear that depression and other disorders manifest themselves in the physical activity of the brain. The difference in a side-by-side comparison between someone with depression and someone without it is easily visible. This is also the case with Alzheimers, ADHD, eating disorders, and autism. A person’s brain functions in a fundamentally different way when he or she faces these types mental challenges, and neuromodulation strives to change the brain’s activity in a way that eases the symptoms. Through introducing some type of stimulus to the nervous system, neuromodulation can either increase or decrease nerve activity, normalized levels of activity in the brain and helping to alleviate symptoms.
What are some examples of neuromodulation?
Perhaps the most well-known of the forms of neuromodulation, at least here at Achieve, is dTMS, or deep transcranial magnetic stimulation. Using a magnetic coil, TMS provides an electrical stimulation to the brain in order to activate specific neuronal networks. It’s FDA-approved to treat depression, but has shown great promise in treating traumatic brain injuries, eating disorders, OCD, and even autism. However, TMS is not the only form of neuromodulation- far from it. There are many other ways to change brain activity for the better. For example, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), forces a higher volume of oxygen into the blood, encouraging new blood vessels to grow and allowing more oxygen to diffuse into the tissues of the body; this results in a myriad of effects- decreased swelling, flushing of toxins, and even the creation of new neurons. Deep brain stimulation (DBS), where a small electrode is surgically implanted in the brain, has been used to treat tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease, as well as OCD, Tourette’s, and chronic pain. Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) involves a similar electrode being implanted in order to stimulate the vagus nerve, and can be used to treat depression. All of these approaches are ways to stimulate the brain into functioning in a more normal way.
Neurofeedback is another approach. Using EEG (electroencephalogram- an imaging tool that shows the electrical activity in the brain) to provide a real-time look into what’s happening in the brain, this tool allows patients to learn how to modify brain activity. It’s usually done through some sort of game that is connected to the patient’s EEG, rewarding them for changing certain brainwaves in the desired direction. Seeing which techniques work and which do not allows them to implement those techniques in their daily life to cope with symptoms.
Why is neuromodulation important?
This specific approach to treatment is crucial to the new understanding of mental illness as a brain disease, as opposed to a behavioral disorder or just a problem with how someone thinks. Because these illnesses physically present in the structure and function of the human brain, they can be treated by coaxing the damaged brain to act in a more normal fashion. Whether through training the patient to change their brain waves on their own, or targeting the problem with stimulation, or any of the countless other ways to change the way the human brain functions, it is clear that these emerging techniques are capable not only of treating patients in a more effective way, but also of changing the entire stigma that surrounds mental illness.
When the general population becomes aware that illnesses such as depression are real, physical problems with the structure or function of the brain, struggling patients will no longer be told to “suck it up” and “just stop being sad”. Mental illness is hard enough without loved ones insisting that it isn’t a genuine issue. Healing techniques that work through changing the malfunctioning part of the brain prove that these illnesses are real problems and should be treated as such, by doctors, patients, and loved ones.