Electrical Brain Stimulation Could Effectively Treat Neurodegenerative Ataxias

According to Newswise, new findings indicate that electrical stimulation of the spinal cord and brain may be effective in treating symptoms of a group of rare neurological movement disorders, neurodegenerative ataxias.

The study detailing this new information was published this past August 22, 2018, and pinpoints the groups’ conditions, including Friedreich’s ataxia, multiple system atrophy, and spinocerebellar ataxia.

Friedreich’s Ataxia Explained

Friedreich ataxia, a type of neurodegenerative ataxia, is a rare genetic condition that causes neurological and movement problems. The onset of the disorder is usually between the ages of 5-15 years. A patient may first show signs of slurred speech and difficulty moving, but as the condition progresses patients may be confined to movement through wheelchair. The condition affects men and women equally, and roughly a quarter of patients start experiencing symptoms after the age of 25; this form of the condition is called late-onset Friedreich ataxia. Patients who experience the onset of symptoms even later, at around age 40, are said to have very late-onset Friedreich ataxia, and usually experience a much slower progression of the condition. To read more about Friedreich ataxia, including symptoms and treatment options, click here.

Multiple System Atrophy Explained

Multiple system atrophy is a rare neurological condition that affects the autonomic system. The condition impairs motor, coordination, and balance centers in the brain. Not only this, but multiple system atrophy also causes disruption in regulation of blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion in the body. The condition usually affects adults over the age of 55. On average, patients survive for 10 years after the onset of symptoms. There are two types of multiple system atrophy, which are defined by the difference in symptoms. The cause of the condition is still unknown, and treatment aims to control the symptoms of the condition. To read more about multiple system atrophy, read this.

Spinocerebellar Ataxia Explained

Spinocerebellar ataxia is an umbrella term that refers to a group of hereditary conditions that are produced when the area of the nervous system that controls movement is damaged. These are called “ataxias.” These conditions cause degenerative changes in the movement control area of the brain as well as sometimes the spinal cord. Spinocerebellar ataxia is usually caused by gene mutations; in some types, the gene that causes this is known but in others it is still a mystery. Genetic testing is available for the types of genes that are known to cause spinocerebellar ataxia. CT and MRI scans are used to diagnose the unknown gene mutations that cause the condition. There is no current cure for the condition, so treatment aims to manage symptoms. To read more about spinocerebellar ataxia, click here.

Electrical Simulation as a Treatment

Symptoms of these group of conditions are similar, including loss of coordination, speech problems, sometimes issues with vision, memory and thinking abilities. As a result, there is a big push to find some sort of treatment to cover the umbrella of conditions, and a recent study may be a huge milestone in reaching that goal.

“These diseases can be devastating, and no effective treatments are currently available for most of these disorders, so there is great interest in finding new treatments to help reduce symptom,” said study author Barbara Borroni, an MD from Italy.

In this study involving electrical simulation as a potential way to treat these neurodegenerative ataxias, researchers used a non-invasive treatment called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The therapy uses electrodes that are placed on the head and along the spine to deliver electrical current.

Specifics of the Study

As for details about the study, it included 20 people who had a variety of types of ataxias. Among all these types, however, the underlying connection was in the fact that each affected the cerebellar part of the brain; as a result, patients all suffered coordination movement.

The average age of the 20 participants was 55 and on average the group had been diagnosed with the condition(s) for 13 years. Like with most studies, the group was split into two: a test group and a control group. The test group received the electrical simulation described above for two weeks, five days a week. The control group received a “placebo” simulation of sorts, in which electrodes were placed on their brains, but the current was only active for five seconds.

Participants in the study were all evaluated before the treatment, two weeks in, and at the one month and three month marks after treatment began. They were measured on overall ataxia, as well as hand and arm dexterity tests, brain response to treatment tests, and finally on how fast they could walk. Study participants then went through a three month period without any sort of treatment before swapping treatments with the other group to complete the study (control group gets treatment, treatment group gets placebo).


The findings were impressive. For the group that received the real electrical simulation treatment, participants improved in every test. Those that received the “sham” simulation did not improve in any test. It is also notable that the positive results lasted a minimum of three months for participants.

“The people who had milder symptoms of their disease showed the greatest improvement in their test scores, suggesting that this stimulation should be given at an early stage of the disease to be more effective,” said Borroni.

Though results are optimistic, one drawback to the study is in the small sample group of participants. In the future, studies with a larger sample may be helpful to solidify results.

To read more about the electrical simulation study, click here.

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