Newer research is showing the benefits of using a weak electrical signal through the brain to help with all body functions. Studies have examined, with positive results, everything from depression, sleep, motor problems, addiction, cognitive tasks, speech…the list goes on. By either exciting or inhibiting the neurons (brain cells), these effects have been shown to last for several hours. With repeated use, the effects appear to become permanent.
It’s done with a device that provides up to 2 milliamps of current through two electrodes placed on the skull. The current is on continuously, rather than cycling on and off. One electrode has positive polarity and the other negative. The positive, or anode, excites the neurons, helping them to fire more. The negative electrode, or cathode, can help down regulate the firing of the brain cells.
To use this, a headband is placed on the person’s head. Two sponges soaked in salt water, are placed under the electrodes. The device will scan to ensure a good circuit is set. Then the small amount of current is started. Typically, treatments begin for 20 minute intervals but can be increased to 45 minutes. While the treatment is in session, a task is generally performed to help enhance the neuronal firing. For example, if you wanted to improve your ability to perform math skills, you would practice math while receiving the treatment. If you’re working on fine motor skills, you may play an instrument, work on hand writing or knitting, etc.
Using clinical reasoning to determine which area of the brain to activate and which to calm down is a crucial part of treatment. For example, if someone is working on verbal fluency, a recent study with Parkinson’s patients worked on frontal and temporo-parietal areas. They found improvements in phonemic and semantic fluency. Knowing what areas need improvement, combined with brain mapping, guides electrode placement.
As of 2012, there have been over 600 studies using tDCS. Parkinson’s disease is a smaller amount of the studies. Scientists are finding improvements in motor function. There remains a lot of area to research, but the current results are very promising for improvements in all areas.
This is not appropriate treatment for someone with a deep brain stimulator, nor someone with seizure disorders. It has not been examined for safety in pregnant women or children. Side effects can include a mild tingling, light itching, or burning/pain under the electrodes, headache, or nausea.
Watch for more information in future newsletters.
Stacy Hennis is the principal of New Beginnings Physical Therapy, Inc., providing the highest level of rehabilitative care available by all highly trained and licensed professionals in physical therapy. She is LSVT-BIG certified. For more information go to the WELLNESS VILLAGE on the PRO website, ParkinsonsResource.org/spotlight/new-beginning-physical-therapy/