Dive into Neuromodulation: Personalisation in Brain Stimulation

Ethan Kee
Ethan Kee
2020-10-16 · Read time: 5 min

As treatments for mental health disorders swing towards neuroscience, mental health professionals and treatment providers find themselves in the exciting position to build on recent innovations in personalised neuromodulation to provide more effective, more consistent, and more unique relief to individuals with depression.

The progression of traditional treatments for depression has slowed in the past several years. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – one of the more effective current treatments – has maintained a remission rate in the 50% range for years now, with programmes often spanning several months. While this has taken us further than before, there is room to grow. Modern pharmaceuticals, despite their prevalent usage, have met a similar fate with regards to predictability and progress. Standard dosages take anywhere from four weeks to several months to reach peak efficacy, and peak efficacy is usually comparable to that of CBT. What’s more, these popular treatment methods are both faced with the issue of severely treatment-resistant patients – a demographic that constitutes 30% of individuals who experience major depression and for whom there are still no alternatives given as standard care practice.

Research in recent years, however, has opened the door to new depression treatment methods that use neuromodulation and machine learning to offer patients a more personalised form of relief and an encouraging option for treatment-resistant patients. A Stanford study has tested a new patient-specific way to use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that could serve as a reliable supplement to traditional treatment methods. The Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy (SAINT) method approaches mental health disorders from a neuroanatomical level – employing an MRI to identify specific brain regions that demonstrate irregular neural activity and subsequently targeting said regions with localised transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

In the SAINT study, researchers were able to associate neural patterns in certain areas of the brain with depressive symptoms and methodically stimulate those areas in efforts to alleviate the symptoms or, in some cases, induce more positive sensations. The results were highly encouraging.

According to the study design, a full dosage of this new treatment can be administered in only five days – substantially shorter than the TMS standard 6 weeks – due to a shorter stimulation duration (3 minutes versus 37 minutes) and shorter between-dose intervals. Patients began feeling the anti-depressive effects after the second or third day. The study resulted in a 90% remission rate with 70% of patients continuing to experience more than half a reduction in their depressive symptoms over a month past the initial treatment date.

These positive results validate and offer early hope for a new personalised method of depression treatment. This new way of delivering non-invasive stimulation is tailored to neural activity and symptoms on a patient-to-patient basis without incurring the side effects seen in earlier stimulation-based treatments.  Different from pharmaceuticals, which offer a rather one-size-fits-all solution, or CBT, which has to work backwards from symptoms, the SAINT protocol extends acute attention towards the neuroanatomical origins of depressive symptoms and is mindful of the individuality of mental health disorders. Further studies of similar approaches have even gone so far as to be “state-dependent” – meaning the stimulation is customised according to the patient’s concurrent mood.

These general upward developments in depression treatment also offer support and direction to the Flow initiative. Flow’s transcranial direct stimulation (tCDS) operates towards the same goal as the TMS technique used in the SAINT study, however, implements a weak current as opposed to magnetic stimulation. Flow’s non-invasive stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) – an area indicated in depression – provides the same effects, but is accessible to patients outside of clinic-only settings. One question remains, however: how can this personalised, responsive treatment be tailored to individual patients’ brains in real-time?

While a non-invasive solution provides some understanding, remarkable breakthroughs within invasive brain stimulation techniques and brain modelling have made larger indications as to how personalized brain stimulation can be adjusted and administered on the fly and without an MRI. Researchers at USC’s Neural Systems Engineering & Information Processing Lab have developed technologies both to track brain activity in real-time and to learn how to regulate stimulation dosages accordingly.

Dr. Shanechi and her colleagues at USC set out to devise tools that account for the malleability of depressive symptoms and patient moods. The team envisioned a personalised treatment that constantly monitors brain activity and supplies the properly calibrated stimulation. The first tool that Dr. Shanechi and co. designed is a specialised electric wave that can monitor an individual’s neural activity instantaneously. This technology allows doctors to see a patient’s neural activity at a moment’s notice.

The second innovation from the USC lab would next allow DBS to be administered remotely according to the real-time brain activity. Shanechi and her colleagues tested the neural reactions of different stimuli in different brain regions with enough consistency and precision to devise algorithms that learn how an individual’s brain will respond to a spectrum of DBS dosages. The product is a machine learning technology that can process brain activity in the moment and identify the appropriate stimulation.

Together, these technologies make it possible for patients to receive real-time DBS that is tailored to their present neural state, mood, and depressive symptoms – much like a neural “pace-maker”.

The advances in depression treatment that USC and Stanford have offered have inspiring implications on Flow and the understanding of mental illness at large.

With regards to the latter, personalised neuromodulation allows psychiatry to venture towards a style of treatment that pays necessary attention to the personal nuances of depression and psychiatric disorders alike – a type of care not yet possible with the current diagnosis and treatment process. Patients in the discussed studies have reported feeling more comfort and resilience knowing that they are receiving treatment that is specific to them, their testimonials speak for themselves:

“I’m in a much more peaceful state of mind,” one patient of the SAINT study recounted, “able to enjoy the positive things in life with the energy to get things done.” One patient who participated in a similar study at the University of California, San Francisco remarked, “It struck me so clearly in that moment that my depression wasn’t something I was doing wrong…Every time they’d stimulate, I felt like, ‘I’m my old self, I could do the things I want to do with my life.”

As for Flow Neuroscience, our mission has always contained a similar emphasis on the individual experience. With these recent advancements, we will be able to turn this verbal mission into a tangible reality for our users. While already on the cutting edge of depression treatment with at-home tCDS technology, the SAINT and USC studies offer a roadmap by which Flow can further tune our treatment to the individual user, placing the latest and greatest of psychiatric treatment in the hands of those who need it.

Free trial

Try Flow for free, payment will be taken 30 days after the order date.

Treatment pads

You will receive automatic deliveries of your treatment pads directly to your door as part of the subscription service.

Buy device

You can buy your Flow device after 6 months of your subscription. When you are eligible, you can email us at support@flowneuroscience.com to purchase the headset for half of the full price.  

End subscription

You can end your subscription at any time and return your headset by following the return request here. There will be no refunds on subscriptions already paid. Once the request is submitted no further subscription payments will be taken.