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Electric Patch Could Help Treat PTSD

Image courtesy of UCLA.

In a study published in Neuromodulation: Technology at the Neural Interface, an unobtrusive patch on the forehead provided considerable relief from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the 12 people who participated. For those who participated, an average of 30 years had passed since the traumatic events that triggered their PTSD symptoms.

“We’re talking about patients for whom illness had almost become a way of life,” said Andrew Leuchter, MD, the study’s senior author, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor of psychiatry and director of the neuromodulation division at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Yet they were coming in and saying, ‘For the first time in years I slept through the night,’ or ‘My nightmares are gone.’ The effect was extraordinarily powerful.”
The research revealed the first evidence that trigeminal nerve stimulation, or TNS, holds promise for treating chronic PTSD.

“Most patients with PTSD do get some benefit from existing treatments, but the great majority still have symptoms and suffer for years from those symptoms,” said Leuchter, who is also a staff psychiatrist at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. “This could be a breakthrough for patients who have not been helped adequately by existing treatments.”

TNS is a new form of neuromodulation, a class of treatment in which external energy sources are used to make subtle adjustments to the brain’s electrical wiring-sometimes with devices that are implanted in the body, but increasingly with external devices. The approach is gaining popularity for treating drug-resistant neurological and psychiatric disorders.

TNS harnesses current from a 9-volt battery to power a patch that is placed on the user’s forehead. While the person sleeps, the patch sends a low-level current to cranial nerves that run through the forehead, sending signals to parts of the brain that help regulate mood, behavior, and cognition, including the amygdala and media prefrontal cortex, as well as the autonomic nervous system. Prior research has shown abnormal activity in those areas of the brains of PTSD sufferers.

Sufferers often have difficulty working with others, raising children, and maintaining healthy relationships. Many try to avoid situations that could trigger flashbacks, which makes them reluctant to socialize or venture from their homes, leaving them isolated. People with the disorder are six times more likely than their healthy counterparts to commit suicide, and they have an increased risk for marital difficulties and dropping out of school.

For the recently completed study, the researchers recruited people with chronic PTSD and severe depression who were already being treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both. The severity of participants’ PTSD symptoms dropped by an average of more than 30 percent, and the severity of their depression dropped by an average of more than 50 percent, the study reports. For one-quarter of the study subjects, PTSD symptoms went into remission. In addition, study subjects generally said they felt more able to participate in their daily activities.

Based on the study, which was conducted primarily with civilian volunteers, the scientists are recruiting military veterans, who are at an even greater risk for PTSD, for the next phase of their research.

This article was adapted from information provided by UCLA.