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The last few weeks have been pretty important for brainwave technology, and the new research in tandem with technological innovation is likely to yield a significant boon for studying neurodegenerative diseases among others. The latest breakthrough in this regard comes from a study published in Military Medical Research. It covers a noninvasive means of assessing brainwaves. Similar technological approaches are also being taken toward treatment for Alzheimer’s.
The research team responsible for the recent breakthrough operates out of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. They conducted a pilot study for noninvasive brainwave mirroring technology, which greatly mitigated post-traumatic stress symptoms. “Ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress, whether clinically diagnosed or not, are a pervasive problem in the military,” according to Charles Tegeler, a neurology professor and researcher at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
“Medications are often used to help control specific symptoms but can produce side effects. Other treatments may not be well tolerated, and few show a benefit for the associated sleep disturbance. Additional noninvasive, non-drug therapies are needed,” Tegeler adds. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports some 10 percent of veterans suffering from PTSD are Gulf War (or Desert Storm) veterans. The department also reports about 11 percent being veterans from the Afghan proxy war; the Vietnam War veterans account for 31 percent of PTSD-afflicted veterans.
Post-traumatic stress covers a broad range of symptoms that include the reliving of traumatic experiences that either initiated PTSD or furthered it in some way. Other symptoms, though, include despondency, insomnia, irritability, inadequate ability to focus, hyper-alertness and autonomic cardiovascular regulation. The study relied on novel neurotechnology called HIRREM — high-resolution, relational, resonance-based, electroencephalic mirroring. It’s a closed-loop, acoustic stimulation approach that bypasses the need for surgery altogether, using algorithms on advanced software to translate brain frequencies into audible tones. It accomplishes this in real time and does so barely even invades a patient’s personal space, much less his or her body.
One of the most valuable implications of the availability of this kind of technology now, which is somewhat evident in the study, is that it allows the brain to be ‘heard’ in a sense, and more importantly, it allows the brain to hear itself, hence the term “acoustic mirror,” according to Tegeler. The brain supports its own reduction of hyperarousal and improved balance most likely by way of acoustic simulation and the resonance between brain frequencies. This isn’t known to require any conscious cognition, so human beings typically consider the value of this neurological phenomenon automatic. HIRREM is, therefore, intended to provide the kind of support for the brain that can reset its response patterns in relation to stress, and for PTSD brains, those response patterns have typically been rewired by the repetition of traumatic events whether physical or otherwise.
“We observed reductions in post-traumatic symptoms, including insomnia, depressive mood, and anxiety that were durable through six months after the use of HIRREM, but additional research is needed to confirm these initial findings,” Tegeler explains. “This study is also the first to report improvement in heart rate variability and baroreflex sensitivity — physiological responses to stress — after the use of an intervention for service members or veterans with ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress.”
As novel as the technology and logistics of this kind of PTSD treatment is, it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much brainwaves factor into future treatments. It was only a couple weeks prior that a study was published in Nature on revelatory Alzheimer’s disease treatment based on brainwaves. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) supported the human trial for experimental treatment that started almost a year ago. Experiments took an acoustic approach as well, and according to a retired, AT&T product manager whose wife was an Alzheimer’s patient in the trial, the researchers were “all very good and smart people, and they were all 32-and-a-half years old,” he jested.
His wife, Peg Gleason of age 83, entered the trial at a warehouse campus belonging to TheraNova, a biotechnology developer based in San Francisco, California. Ed Gleason explained, “They put very large sunglasses on Peg with the lenses blacked out,” and he added that they “taped very small LED lights to them so that, when you put them on, all you saw were the four little lights on each lens. And they would be calibrated to flicker at 40 hertz.” The tone played at 40 hertz reached Peg via earphones as well as palm pads that vibrated at the same frequency. The treatment only lasted about an hour on any given day, give or take 15 minutes for post-trial evaluation.
Brain waves happen to operate around 40 hertz, creating what neurologists often call the gamma band. The frequency is generally associated with the more complex ilk of cognitive function like spatial navigation and working memory. That gamma band is what Alzheimer’s is said to directly impair. MIT’s Li-Huei Tsai, lead author on the study, said that the concepts were first observed and tested in mice who were bred to develop Alzheimer’s. The team was able to get gamma brainwaves to rebound in those mice via LED flickering at 40 hertz, and the human trial made considerable strides in replicating this effect.
“They can remember an object in an environment, they can remember a place and they can navigate better,” Tsai said of the mice. More research needs to be completed to determine just how analogous the progress is in human beings.