We’ve all heard of life hacks… people finding new, creative ways to improve their lives. Nowadays, people are also discovering brain hacks… new ways to stimulate brain activity! One “brain hack” recently got the attention of researchers from Belgium. It’s called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). It works by sending a constant, low-level direct electrical current through electrodes that are placed on the head in the damaged region. The electrical current either increases or decreases the activity in the brain. As a result, this change in activity leads to alterations in the brain that hopefully impact sensory, motor, emotional, and cognitive functions.
Case study – electrical brain stimulation and neglect
The researchers from Liege looked at the effects of electrical stimulation on patients with visual-spatial neglect in the acute stage after a stroke. Visual-spatial neglect is an attention-deficit problem that is notoriously difficult to treat. Some signs of neglect may include the person denying or not recognizing the presence of a limb on one side of the body, turning abruptly away from someone approaching them, navigating their wheelchair in circles or hitting doorways, or walking bent-over or tilted. Because using tDCS as a treatment for this problem in the acute stage is very new and innovative, this study tested only four men. They were 74, 73, 69 and 59 years old, with right-sided blockages. Three patients experienced posterior coronary artery (PCA) blockages and one a middle coronary artery (MCA) blockage. Right-sided blockages cause left-sided neglect problems, however, the specific types of neglect were not specified.
A recent video showing a tDCS treatment.
Although this case study consisted of only four patients, the researchers used a protocol that has been used in more extensive studies and for other conditions such as depression. They administered ‘actual’ treatments and placebo treatments. The placebo treatments followed the same procedures just without electrical current so that patients didn’t know which treatment they got. While two patients received actual therapy in weeks 1 and 3, the other two received placebo therapy. In weeks 2 and 4, patients received the opposite. The daily treatments started within 48 hours after the stroke and lasted for 20 minutes. The electrical impulses stimulated or excited the neurons. In conjunction with the tDCS, patients received 60 minutes of physical therapy, 30 minutes of occupational therapy, and 30 minutes of neuropsychological therapy daily.
The researchers used standardized protocols to access the effectiveness of the treatment. They didn’t know which week the participant was undergoing real treatment or placebo treatment. Patients performed better in the weeks with the actual tDCS treatment compared to the weeks with the placebo treatment. Although this is a small case study, and thus did not find any statistically significant differences, it shows that this relatively new and safe procedure reduces the effects of neglect, while the therapy is ongoing, in the acute stage of stroke.
This treatment is painless and relatively easy to use. Receiving this therapy in an office can cost about $170 per session and not all insurances cover it. However, there are many tDCS devices that you can buy for home use, ranging in price from $99 upwards.
The leading author of this study is Dr. Bornheim from the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Liege University Hospital, Belgium.