About one in five U.S. military service members return from combat with mild traumatic brain injuries – commonly known as concussion.
Soon, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care System will study a new electrical brain stimulation technique that could help alleviate its symptoms.
The technique, called High-Definition Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (HD-tDCS), involves passing weak electrical currents through the brain.
It causes only a mild tingling feeling. Shocks, seizures and anesthesia are not involved.
Symptoms of mild traumatic brain injuries can include problems with mood, mental focus, balance, vision or hearing.
Researchers will begin clinical trials this winter with 120 participants, 80 of whom suffer from mild TBIs. The subjects are patients at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque.
As subjects receive the treatment, they’ll be asked to perform rehabilitation tasks on a computer or virtual reality device.
Dr. Davin Quinn of the UNM psychiatry department, the study’s principal investigator, said he hopes the treatment will improve attention and memory and reduce some symptoms associated with mild TBIs.
“We also expect that after the procedure, MRI and MEG (magnetoencephalography) images will show that the brain is recovering from its dysfunction,” he said.
The University of Miami, New Jersey Institute of Technology, City College of New York and the Mind Research Network will also work on the trials. The U.S. Department of Defense awarded UNM $3.1 million for the project.
“If successful, this study will validate a new treatment for chronic post concussive-symptoms that has the potential to profoundly change the approach to mTBI,” Quinn said. “This would be of great benefit to military and civilian populations alike, given the large numbers of mTBIs that occur yearly.”
The amount of electricity used in HD-tDCS is “about what you might see in a 9 volt battery,” Quinn said. “A lot of people doubt it could have an effect on the brain, but studies have shown the brain’s activity level changes and excitability changes, and these changes corollate with changes in symptoms and changes in performance on tests.”
What researchers are looking for is if patients with mTBIs “have benefits that last long after the stimulation has ended,” he said. If so, researchers might then look at how more intense electrical stimulation could affect people with more severe traumatic brain injuries.
There are, however, limitations to how much electrical brain stimulation can be delivered safely, Quinn said, and it would likely require modifications to the stimulation technique.
Another possible spin-off area of research is how electrical stimulation might affect the brains of people, such as former football players, experiencing the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
“It would be interesting to look at CTE and how we can halt the possible progression or the mechanism that leads to it,” Quinn said.
HD-tDCS is “a new field,” he said. “We’re only scratching the surface.”
Journal staff reporter Rick Nathanson contributed to this report.