A landmark study by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), in conjunction with the University of California, San Diego, has revealed that the therapeutic use of direct electrical brain stimulation can enhance self-control. The results of the study have far-reaching possibilities in treating a wide range of psychological and behavioral disorders, such as ADHD.
The research, which was conducted in a double-blind study at the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (TMC), focused on epilepsy by studying four volunteers. While epilepsy is not often thought of as a “self-control” disorder, it does have analogues to conditions such as ADHD. Each of the four participants’ seizures were monitored while asked to perform a simple inhibitive behavioral task, thus creating a “braking” pattern in the brain.
By monitoring each patient during this thought process, researchers were able to locate the exact area for the brake in the brain’s prefrontal region. Once this region was established, a computer solution was used to calculate exactly where braking was needed in the prefrontal cortex. Once the area was determined, small electrodes were implanted directly onto the surface of the brain. Even with brief, mild electrical pulses, the targeted electrotherapy led to “increased braking,” which constitutes a form of “enhanced self-control.”
Nitin Tandon, M.D., the study’s senior author and associate professor in The Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at the UTHealth Medical School, believes that the new research has led to an actionable means of enhancing self-control: “There is a circuit in the brain for inhibiting or braking responses. We believe we are the first to show that we can enhance this braking system with brain stimulation.”
Moreover, Dr. Tandon noted that, in what he describes as the first published human study to enhance prefrontal lobe function using direct electrical stimulation, the results of the study revealed that in order for the electrical pulses to be effective, they must be targeted at the prefrontal cortex of the brain; stimulating regions outside the prefrontal cortex had no palpable effect on behavior.
“Our daily life is full of occasions when one must inhibit responses,” he said. “For example, one must stop speaking when it’s inappropriate to the social context and stop oneself from reaching for extra candy.”
At present, the researchers have stopped short of claiming that the use of direct electrical stimulation is developed enough for the treatment of self-control disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, or borderline personality disorder — the understanding of how such treatment would work is still in its infancy. and considering that the mode of direct electrical stimulation that researchers used required an invasive surgical procedure — a procedure that is only used in cases of severe epilepsy — the approach is far from being ready for mainstream use. However, the new insights give hope that there could be a use for the findings in future treatments for disorders that affect self-control.
Their study appears in The Journal of Neuroscience.