Researchers test treatment to ‘turn down’ unwanted voices and ‘turn up’ thinking in people with schizophrenia

Next month, NeuRA researchers will begin assessing the use of mild electrical stimulation to treat symptoms of schizophrenia.

“Unwanted voices and thought problems are symptoms of schizophrenia that are often resistant to current treatments with antipsychotic medication,” says Neuroscience Research Australia’s Dr Tom Weickert.

“We are testing a new type of brain stimulation treatment called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation that might help in these two important problem areas,” he says.

Studies have shown that a brain stimulation technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) can reduce the unwanted voices associated with schizophrenia. However, this technique can bring on seizures in people who are seizure prone.

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) uses a very mild electrical current and has little in the way of side effects, says Dr Weickert.

In tDCS, a researcher places electrodes on the scalp and applies a very mild electrical stimulation between the front and the side of the brain on opposite sides of the head.

“The stimulation is very weak, and amounts to two milliamps,” says Dr Weickert. “Some people feel it as a tingling on the scalp while others cannot feel the stimulation at all. I have received it myself and I can sense a tingling or a slightly warm sensation on my scalp.”

The theory behind tDCS is that the electrical stimulation will help ‘turn down’ the activity of nerve cells on the side of the brain that produces unwanted voices, and ‘turn up’ the activity of nerve cells in the front of the brain that are used for thinking and motivation.

“Positron emission tomography (PET) brain scans have shown that people with schizophrenia often have less activity in the front of the brain involved in solving problems and too much activity on the side of the brain responsible for hearing voices,” says Dr Weickert.

Another advantage of tDCS over TMS as a treatment is that tDCS can potentially reduce the voices and improve thinking at the same time, while TMS can only treat one or the other, says Dr Weickert.

Participants will receive tDCS for 20 minutes, five days a week for four weeks and will continue to take their antipsychotic medication as usual. They will also be asked to complete pencil and paper and computerised tests to see if the technique is having an effect.

The team is currently recruiting 40 people with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder between 18 and 50 years of age to participate in this study.

“This is the third treatment trial our lab is offering, which is a very exciting time for us,” says Dr Weickert.

“Our hope for this trial is that some people with schizophrenia will be able to experience relief from the unwanted voices that harass them regularly. We also hope they will experience improvement in their thinking abilities and motivation so that they can go on and live a more healthy life.”

Dr Weickert says that if the treatment is found to work, there is an option to remain in treatment beyond just the four weeks of the trial.

If you would like to participate or learn more about the trial, contact Loretta Moore (02 9399 1683, l.moore@neura.edu.au) or Ans Vercammen (02 9399 1858, a.vercammen@neura.edu.au) and ask for the tDCS study.
Read more about other NeuRA schizophrenia treatment trials
Read more about Dr Weickert’s research