Shocking the brain every 90 micro-seconds can help anorexia patients

By Kitty Knowles 23 February 2017

Electrodes could be the answer to treating anorexia, find Canadian scientists.

Anorexia is experienced by around 370,000 people worldwide, with teenage girls accounting for the majority of cases.

Concerns about body weight often lead to mood and anxiety disorders, and ultimately severe health problems, including weak bones and muscles, sexual problems, infertility, heart problems and seizures.

The condition can be fatal.

20% of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely from their illness.

Shock treatment

Today however, Canadian scientists believe they’ve found a new method to help fight anorexia: electric shocks to the brain.

S0-called ‘deep brain stimulation’ can reroute negative brain circuits to improve mood, anxiety and wellbeing, as well as increasing weight, a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry today reveals.

This involves implanting electrodes into an area in the centre of the brain shown to impact dysfunctional behaviours, which they shock at a level of 5 – 6.5 volts every 90 micro-seconds for the course of a year.

This is imperceivably low – an electric shock would generally have to be at least 30 volts for you to feel it.

Positive results

The treatment might sound risky, but all of the participants (women aged between 21 and 57) had been at risk of early death before undertaking the experiment. No other treatments had worked for them.

And the good news is that 10 out of the 14 patients to complete the study reported reduced levels of depression.

Five noted a reduction in mood and anxiety symptoms.

Reprinted from The Lancet: Deep brain stimulation of the subcallosal cingulate for treatment-refractory anorexia nervosa: 1 year follow-up of an open-label trial, Copyright (2017), with permission from Elsevier’.

Physical benefits

Going through the process didn’t just have a positive impact of the participants’ mental health, but on their physical health too.

Over the course of the study, the average BMI of the group increased from 13.8 to 17.3, and six patients achieved a normal BMI (of 18.5 or more).

Neurological scans also backed up these results, documenting changes in the way the brain actually functions.

After treatment, there was less activity in some areas, but significantly more in areas linked to social perception and behaviour.

Tentative steps

Not everything went smoothly over the course of the study, however.

Five patients reported feeling pain after the implant surgery that lasted more than 3-4 days; one developed an infection at the site of the surgery which meant it needed to be re-implanted; and one patient had an unexplained seizure several months in.

During the study, two also asked to have the electrodes removed, potentially a result of them being uncomfortable with their weight gain, the researchers suggest.

What’s clear is that deep brain stimulation is an area where more research is vital.

“There is an urgent need to develop safe, effective, evidence-driven treatments that are informed by a growing understanding of brain circuitry,” said study author, Professor Andres Lozano, University of Toronto.

“Deep brain stimulation may have an impact on the circuitry of symptoms that serve to maintain anorexia and make it so difficult to treat,” added Dr Nir Lipsman, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

No one should have to live with anorexia untreated.