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New study reveals major advance in understanding brain stimulation therapies


Reviews — MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (03/15/2024) — For the first time, researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities have shown that non-invasive brain stimulation can change a specific brain mechanism directly linked to human behavior. This is a major breakthrough in the discovery of new therapies to treat brain disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

The study was recently published in Natural communicationsa peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal.

The researchers used what is called “transcranial alternating current stimulation” to modulate brain activity. This technique is also known as neuromodulation. By applying a small electrical current to the brain, the time when brain cells are active is changed. This modulation of neuronal timing is linked to neuroplasticity, which is a change in the connections between brain cells necessary for human behavior, learning and cognition.

“Previous research has shown that brain activity is time-limited to stimulation. What we found in this new study is that this relationship changes slowly and the brain adapts over time as we add external stimulation,” said Alexander Opitz, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota. “This showed that brain activity was changing in ways we didn’t expect.”

This result is called “neuronal phase precession.” This is when brain activity gradually changes over time based on a repetitive pattern, such as an external event or, in this case, non-invasive stimulation. In this research, the three methods studied (computer, human and animal models) showed that external stimulation could change brain activity over time.

“The timing of this repetitive pattern has a direct impact on brain processes, for example how we navigate in space, learn and remember,” Opitz said.

The discovery of this new technique shows how the brain adapts to external stimulation. This technique can increase or decrease brain activity, but is most powerful when targeting specific brain functions that affect behaviors. In this way, long-term memory as well as learning can be improved. The long-term goal is to use this technique in the treatment of psychiatric and neurological disorders.

Opitz hopes this discovery will help improve knowledge and technology in clinical applications, which could lead to more personalized therapies for schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

In addition to Opitz, the research team included co-first authors Miles Wischnewski and Harry Tran. Other team members from the University of Minnesota Department of Biomedical Engineering include Zhihe Zhao, Zachary Haigh, Nipun Perera, Ivan Alekseichuk, Sina Shirinpour and Jonna Rotteveel. This study was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Jan Zimmermann, associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

This work was supported primarily by the National Institute of Health (NIH), as well as the Behavior and Brain Research Foundation and the Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE) initiative at the University of Minnesota. Computing resources were provided by the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute (MSI).

To read the full research paper titled “Neural Phase Precession Induced by Exogenous Electric Fields,” visit Nature Communication website.


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