Can Electricity Treat Tourette Syndrome?

A new study suggests the application of electric shock reduces the effects of Tourette syndrome. Stimulating the brain with electricity shows reduction in vocal, and motor tics. Keep reading to learn more this shocking development, or follow the original story here.

When most people think of electricity they think of lightening. The temptation then is to think of electric shock treatment as zapping or electrocuting the brain. The technical term for the procedure though is deep brain stimulation.

Unlike lightening, it’s not a hit or miss process. Treatment requires administration by trained brain surgeons. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves the application of small electric leads to key areas of the brain. The areas targeted by DBS are involved in the regulation of motor control and behavior. The basal ganglia contains most of these areas.

Once the leads are attached to the proper areas, doctors administer electricity to the parts of the brain linked to Tourette syndrome. Tourette syndrome is a rare neurological condition that causes a patient to express involuntary tics. To learn more about it, click here.

“We’re eavesdropping on the brain,” says senior researcher, Dr. Michael Okun, “and trying to find the circuit responsible for adversely affecting the patient’s quality of life.”

He continues to explain that the introduction of electricity allows doctors to alter the way brain circuits function.

The study reports that in 171 patients the therapy reduced severity of tics by half. The test group spans 31 hospitals located in 10 different countries.

DBS isn’t a perfect procedure though. More than one-third of DBS patients reported negative side effects of treatment.

The most common side effects included slurred speech and the sensation of pins-and-needles. All of these unintended effects result from electricity jumping to other areas of the brain than the ones targeted. Future research aims to develop methods of preventing this.

In most cases, treatment for Tourette syndrome patients includes medication and speech, or behavioral therapy. Uncontrolled and extreme cases are more likely to be considered for DBS. DBS has also been sued for the treatment of other motor diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

Currently, DBS is most commonly used in cases where other treatment is ineffective or the patient’s tics are causing injury.

Brain surgery always carries some risk. Researchers desire, however, to make the process safer before advancing it as a more common treatment. Fortunately, the most common side effects of DBS do go away. Changing the treatment program or disabling the treatment device typically reverses the side effects. Both slurred speech, and pins-and-needles sensations go away after a time.

Continuing research on DBS focuses on reducing side effects. Locating the specific nerves causing Tourette syndrome symptoms is one specific aim. Another is to develop more accurate technology that will better target the located nerves and more precisely deliver electrical stimuli.

Other research aims to create what researchers are calling a “smart” DBS. Current devices administer a persistent electrical charge to counteract Tourette syndrome. A smarter device would be able to sense when it is needed and only administer treatment then.

Dr. Okun confirms that advances are being made from where DBS began. He describes the initial findings as somewhat crude. Doctors inserted electrical leads, and calculated the best ratio of risk and reward possible. Technological improvements are, however, allowing for the process to be refined and perfected.

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