A new study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering has demonstrated how a brain implant can help deliver targeted bursts of electrical stimulation to improve cognitive functions. The study is based on years of work on the parts of the brain responsible for cognitive control.
A number of mental health disorders are caused by impaired cognitive control which can range from depression to obsessive control disorder (OCD). These cognitive control deficits manifest in involuntary thought processes. Alik Widge, from the University of Minnesota Medical School says the inability to easily shift from one thought process to another is a key feature of many mental illnesses. “An example might include a person with depression who just can’t get out of a ‘stuck’ negative thought,” says Widge. “Because it is so central to mental illness, finding a way to improve it could be a powerful new way to treat those illnesses.”
A study by Widge and his colleagues from 2019 found that electrically stimulating the ventral internal capsulre/ventral striatum (VCVC) areas of the brain could help enhance the cognitive control. For demonstration, participants were made to carry out a cognitive control test which identified specific neural biomarkers that corresponded with clinical improvements.
The researchers developed an algorithm from those findings that could detect in real-time when the brain was struggling with cognitive control tasks. During this period, the system delivers short bursts of electrical stimulation to VCVS regions rapidly, which enhances cognitive control performance. “This system can read brain activity, ‘decode’ from that when a patient is having difficulty, and apply a small burst of electrical stimulation to the brain to boost them past that difficulty,” explains Widge. “The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone’s pedaling but having difficulty, the bike senses it and augments it. We’ve made the equivalent of that for human mental function.”
While it’s still the initial stage, the study indicates how cognitive control deficits are common among many mental disorders and if treated properly can help patients recover without long-lasting side effects.