A cap that treats depression? Check the science before getting excited
Yesterday, an article in the Entrepreneurs section of the Guardian purported to reveal a “cloth cap that could help treat depression”. This claim has caused some alarm in the neuroscience and mental health fields, so it’s important to look a little more closely at what the manufacturers are actually claiming.
The piece in question concerns a product from Neuroelectrics: a soft helmet containing electrodes and sensors. According to the company’s website, it can be used to monitor brain activity (electroencephalography, or EEG), or administer light electrical currents to different areas of the brain in order to treat certain neurological and psychiatric conditions (known as transcranial direct current stimulation or tDCS).
While this would obviously be great news to the millions of people who deal with such conditions every day, such claims should be treated with a considerable amount of caution.
The fields of science dedicated to researching and, hopefully, treating serious brain-based problems like depression, stroke, personality disorder etc. work hard to find new and inventive methods for doing so, or refining and improving existing ones. Sometimes they succeed, but probably not as often as they’d like.
The problem is that when a new development occurs or a new approach is found, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s widely applicable or even effective for everyone. The brain is furiously complicated. There is no magic bullet for brain problems [Note: you shouldn’t use bullets, magic or otherwise, when dealing with the brain].
However, when things are reported for mass consumption, the nuance can be lost, and caveats are often absent. What we do often get, though, is a rush to lionise something because it seems promising.
For example, EEG. The Neuroelectrics website references different conditions in which it is currently clinical practice to use EEG for monitoring or diagnosis. It also mentions numerous EEG studies, including a new piece of research developing EEG biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases. While it is true that EEG is used to diagnose certain conditions such as epilepsy and sleep disorders, its current use is somewhat limited. Using EEG readings to reliably and accurately diagnose depression would certainly be a tremendous achievement, but nobody has managed this so far. The article implies that the cap would be able to both identify and treat depression, but diagnosis of depression is not claimed on the Neuroelectrics website.
Treatment is another aspect of the cap’s advertised function. The article suggests that a variety of neurological problems could be treated by using the cap’s electrodes to channel a low-level current through “problem” areas of the brain. In terms of evidence, a procedure called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) has been shown to be useful in treating depression and other conditions, but TMS involves powerful magnetic fields being used to stimulate specific brain regions, which requires bulky equipment and trained operators. Ergo, it’s hard to see how this, although a proven treatment, could be packaged into a marketable product.
The item in the article, however, apparently “treats the conditions by stimulating the brain with a low electrical current”. This is transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), where a current is passed through specific brain regions, intended to increase activity of those regions and improve their functioning, treating certain conditions as a result.
tDCS is a very new method and there’s still a lot of research to be done on exactly how effective it is (if at all). There is certainly no concrete evidence at present to suggest it can be used to treat depression, although it’s early days yet. It has been shown to increase concentration and performance in tasks though, and as such a number of items claiming to provide this effect have become available (e.g. for the gaming community) leading to a lot of concern from scientists. We’re talking about directly altering the brain’s activity with an electrical device here. Such things should not be done lightly by your average person with no relevant expertise. The product mentioned in the article is currently intended for the medicine and research fields, not the average customer. However, the reporting seems to imply that home use is imminent.
It is important to be wary of focusing too much on how the product could help people with mental health problems such as depression. At present, this is an encouraging possibility rather than an established fact. Quotes in the article such as “the medical community is conservative” imply that the only obstacle stopping these devices from treating depression is the reluctance of medical professionals to use them. Whatever you think of the medical community, this “conservatism” could be viewed as a highly-principled insistence on having sufficient evidence that running currents through people’s brains will help before they start doing so en-masse.
What this comes down to is responsible reporting, both from companies researching and developing new products and journalists writing up apparent breakthroughs. New ways to treat mental health problems will always be welcome, but they need to be shown to be useful before we start singing their praises.
Dean Burnett is a doctor of neuroscience, and tutors and lectures at Cardiff University.
Source: A cap that treats depression? Check the science before getting excited
Via: Google Alert for Neuroscience