Very mild electrical brain stimulation could be used as a treatment for people with schizophrenia, says researchers.
In a recent study using a technique called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), scientists from Neuroscience Research
Australia (NeuRA) have shown that brain function in people with schizophrenia can improve after applying the stimulation for just 20 minutes.
“We found that this type of brain stimulation boosted learning from feedback which is important in everyday life, for example in learning to act on cues from other people in social situations,” says lead researcher, Dr Tom Weickert.
“There are very few new treatment options for people with schizophrenia, so finding a different treatment that is promising and also has little in the way of side effects is very exciting,” he says.
tDCS transmits a very mild electrical current to the brain through electrodes on the scalp. This technique has previously been shown to improve brain function in healthy people, as well as people with depression.
In the study, tDCS was applied to a region of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex of people with schizophrenia for 20 minutes.
One of the characteristics of schizophrenia is reduced brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain used for thinking, motivation and learning.
During the application, participants were asked to complete a computer task designed to measure improvements in a type of learning called ‘implicit learning’, in this case learning to predict the weather (rain or shine) using tarot cards.
The team found that tDCS improved learning abilities in those people who already showed some potential to learn during an initial testing session without brain stimulation.
“The brain stimulation may encourage other nerve cells close by to become active and improve learning,” says Dr Weickert.
The next step in the research is to determine whether the brain stimulation technique has a lasting effect on learning abilities. The study, in which participants will receive 20 minutes of tDCS five days a week for four weeks, is already underway.
The research was published in the journal Schizophrenia Research.
Read a related news story at The Conversation