In a study involving 12 patients, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that electrical stimulation controlled by artificial intelligence can normalize brain activities in persons with mental illness.
The patients have epilepsy and underwent brain surgery to implant electrodes throughout the brain. When pulsed, the electrodes can help to control seizures.
These patients also suffered from depression and other mental illnesses.
In the experiment, electrodes also were implanted in a portion of the brain called the internal capsule, which serves as a communications hub that shuttles electrical signals down various pathways.
The internal capsule’s electrodes were connected to a small external control box that contained an artificial intelligence (AI) program able to read electrical patterns coming from the internal capsule.
When a patient was feeling depressed, for example, the internal capsule would emit a distinct pattern of electrical signals. Seeing that pattern, the AI program would send a particular pattern of electrical pulses back to the internal capsule that would jolt the capsule out of its depressive rut.
Some patients in the experiment were plagued with anxiety. When the AI system saw they were having an anxiety episode, it would pulse the internal capsule and the patients were then able to get “unstuck” from the anxiety and focus instead on their goals or other more useful thoughts, they said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already has approved external electrical stimulation for use in the internal capsule, so the researchers are now planning a wider clinical trial.
TRENDPOST: The Massachusetts research offers an entirely new way of treating persistent mental illness, giving patients tools to alter brain patterns instead of using synthetic chemicals to suppress symptoms.
However, the study also sharpens questions about altering moods or thought patterns artificially, including what behaviors or mental patterns should qualify for external manipulation and who, if anyone, should be allowed to decide that the intervention should be used on someone else.