June 23, 2004

Electro-Stimulation of Brain Cells Causes Chemistry Change

Read more... Schizophrenia Biology

Electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) has been a contraversial, not infrequently used treatment for serious depressions and some cases of psychotic disorders for some time, but doctors did not know the cause of its beneficial results.

New research from the University of California, San Diego may shed some light on a possible mechanism. When scientists manipulated the electrical currents flowing through the nerve cells of frog embryos, they were able to change the levels of released neurotransmitters depending on whether electrical activity was increased or decreased. The affected neurotransmitters played a role in forming new connections between nerve cells.

"Different frequencies of signals lead to the appearance of different neurotransmitters," said Nicholas Spitzer, a UCSD neuroscientist. "The concept then would be to stimulate the nervous system (through treatments like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS) with the relevant frequencies of electrical stimulation to try to alter the balance of transmitters."

Neurotransmitter imbalance, such as dopamine levels in schizophrenia and serotonin levels in depression, has been implicated in numerous research studies as being behind some of the disabling symptoms of the disorders.

The next step before mental illness patients see any direct benefit will be to determine whether the same findings hold true in adult organisms with mature, more complex nervous systems. Clinical trials in humans are still several years away.

However, scientists look toward the future with hopes of developing alternative treatments to medication therapies. "If we could find a way to stimulate the function (of neurons) electrically instead of with drugs, that may actually be a much more . . . natural remedy," said Gabrielle Leblanc, a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which helped fund the study.

For the full-text news article, please see 'Scientists at UCSD report on electrical stimulations of the brain' in the San Diego Union Tribune, June 3 2004.

Read more on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, an alternative therapy that shows early promise in the treatment of mental illness.

See the following articles for more information on electroconvulsive therapy:

Electroconvulsive Therapy Overview
Book excerpts about ECT
PubMed.org: Electroconvulsive Therapy in Adolescents; Similarities to and Differences From Adults


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