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Tech & Psychiatry- How Neurotech Startups Are Tackling Depression, Alzheimer’s And Parkinson’s by Dr. Michael Reed


Technology and neuroscience are coming together to tackle mental illness, thanks to startups like Cerestim, a transcranial therapeutics company. The idea is that thanks to advancements in things like brain imaging, companies should be able to use a technique called transcranial brain stimulation, whereby tiny electrical currents are able to change how certain parts of the brain communicate, to effectively treat a host of mental disorders.

If these companies can perfect the technology, it would improve the health and well-being of patients while also lowering the costs of treating mental disorders for healthcare providers.

The prevalence of brain disorders has been a growing concern in the world of medicine. In a 2010 study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the World Health Organization found that the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) of brain disorders’ is projected to rise from 11 percent in 1990 to 15 percent by 2020. To put that rise in perspective, this growth outpaces the projected growth of heart disease during that same period.

One of the biggest hurdles scientists face when studying various treatment options for brain disorders is that up to 30 percent of those afflicted cannot be treated with traditional pharmaceutical therapies. This is why companies like Cerestim are so important.

Using specially designed headsets, these products have the potential to treat a range of diseases, including depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s with a nonpharmacological approach.

Alan Palmer, director of Cerestim, told International Business Times, “Having a nonpharmacological treatment for such patients is absolutely essential, and I am optimistic that we can get some success in that area and offer some symptomatic relief to those individuals where the drugs don’t work whatsoever.”

The headset in development by Cerestim is meant to be used by patients in their homes, but remotely monitored by physicians who will be able to control how often the device is used. Moreover, because the headset will be quite adept at reading an individual patient’s brain waves, it will be also be able to adapt an extremely individualized treatment to each user — something current electrical treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) have thus been incapable of.

In the world of psychiatry, we are especially excited at the prospects for treating depression. The cause of depression is still not fully understood, and pharmacological treatments are often ineffective, only as effective as a placebo, or come with many unwanted side affects.

Many believe that part of the cause of depression lies in a miscommunication that occurs between certain areas in the brain due to misfiring cells or neurons. Solutions like Cerestim’s headset would be able to read a patient’s brain waves and then accurately identify where this “dysfunctional communication” is taking place. Then, using specially designed electrodes tailored for each individual, the headset would repeatedly deliver small alternating electric currents to a particular area of the brain to reset the firing mechanism.

One of the biggest challenges companies like Cerestim face from a market perspective is having to overcome the negative connotations of ECT. As Palmer was quick to admin, “Applying an electric current to your head is scary.”

Cerestim’s headsets couldn’t be more different from ECT, thought. The smallest current an ECT machine can apply is 750 milliamps, but Cerestim’s headset will use an alternating current of just 2 milliamps. Additionally, where ECT purposely attempts to bring on convulsions, Cerestim’s solution will be painless.

Palmer is optimistic. “It takes time for such technologies to be accepted, but I think the process has started,” he said.

Cerestim, a UK based company, was founded in 2014 by Dr. Nir Grossman who is currently conducting further research at MIT Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Proof of concept has been demonstrated, so the next step for the company is to sign a clinical research organization to put its technology into a clinical trial of patients with depression to establish efficacy.

Dr. Michael Reed is a Nashville based Psychiatrist. Please visit his main website for information about his career.