Brain and Body

PTSD Symptoms Dropped Over 30 Percent When Victims Slept With This Electric Patch

February 1, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

TNS harnesses current from a 9-volt battery to power a patch that sends a low-level current to cranial nerves that run through the forehead.
Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

And depression rates dropped 50 percent.

In a new study, researchers tested out an electric patch to see if it could help victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with their debilitating symptoms, like depression, anxiety, irritability, and nightmares.

The 12 victims of PTSD in the study at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior had suffered from traumatic events like rape, domestic abuse, and car accidents. On average, 30 years had passed since the traumas had left them with PTSD, but the suffering hadn’t gone away.

"We're talking about patients for whom illness had almost become a way of life," said senior study author Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and director of the neuromodulation division at the Semel Institute.

"Yet they were coming in and saying, 'For the first time in years I slept through the night,' or 'My nightmares are gone.' The effect was extraordinarily powerful."

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The electric patches use a new form of neuromodulation called trigeminal nerve stimulation (TNS), which is a class of treatment that uses external energy sources to subtly adjust the brain’s electrical wiring. The approach is becoming more popular to treat drug-resistant psychiatric and neurological disorders.

The electrical patch is placed on the user’s forehead while he or she sleeps, and it sends a low-level current to the cranial nerves. These signals help the areas of the brain that regulate mood, behavior, and cognition — the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex — as well as the autonomic nervous system. These areas of the brain have shown abnormal activity in PTSD victims, according to previous research.

"Most patients with PTSD do get some benefit from existing treatments, but the great majority still have symptoms and suffer for years from those symptoms," said Leuchter. "This could be a breakthrough for patients who have not been helped adequately by existing treatments."

In the study, the people with chronic PTSD and depression were already being treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both. They continued their conventional treatments during the duration and wore the electrical patch for eight hours a night while they slept.

Both before and after the study, which lasted for eight weeks, the volunteers completed questionnaires about the severity of their PTSD and depression symptoms, as well as how much their disorders affected their work, socializing, and parenting.

Amazingly, the participants reported that their PTSD symptoms dropped by an average of over 30 percent after using the patch, and the symptoms of their depression dropped by an average of over 50 percent! In fact, the study states that for one quarter of the study subjects, their PTSD symptoms went into remission, which is quite remarkable after suffering from chronic symptoms for about 30 years.

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The study participants also reported that they felt more able to participate in their day-to-day activities.

According to the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD affects approximately 3.6 percent of adults during the course of a given year, and an estimated 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

However, when it comes to military personnel, the numbers jump — about 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD.

That’s why the researchers plan to recruit military veterans, who are at an even greater risk for PTSD than civilians, for the next phase of their research.

"PTSD is one of the invisible wounds of war," said Dr. Ian Cook, the study's lead author. "The scars are inside but they can be just as debilitating as visible scars. So it's tremendous to be working on a contribution that could improve the lives of so many brave and courageous people who have made sacrifices for the good of our country."

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