Psychotropic medications have been developed for a majority of known mental health conditions, and while prescriptions continue to be doled out in droves and funds are still being funneled toward creating new versions of established drugs with fewer side effects, a shift away from pharmaceutical treatment approaches may be on the horizon.
According to a recent article in The Observer, “[A]lmost all the major drug companies have closed or curtailed their drug discovery programmes for mental and neurological disorders” (Bell, 2013). The author goes on to explain that this is largely because nothing all that groundbreaking with regard to psychiatric medication has been created since the 1950s: “New drugs have regularly appeared since then, often with fewer side effects, but most are little better in terms of effectiveness.”
Instead, large sums of money recently have been pledged toward a relatively new wave of neuroscience-based research: understanding and identifying specific neural networks in the brain. The Obama administration has already committed $3 billion, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is planning on shifting its seven-figure budget to funding the research, which has been officially dubbed the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) Project. The hope is that by developing the technology needed to better comprehend the complex circuitry of the brain, mental health practitioners can forgo the current diagnostic system and replace it with one that is more attuned to how difficulties within neural networks are shared across widely researched conditions such as schizophrenia and depression (NIMH).
Though it is unclear what methods of treatment will emerge as a result of this heavily funded endeavor, it is believed the outcomes may be widely employed in treatment settings—potentially in place of drug therapy—within the next decade.
Electronic Stimulation of Neural Pathways Shown to Alleviate Symptoms
While not linked in any official capacity to the RDoC Project, one of the ways in which related technology is already being employed is via cranial electrotherapy stimulator (CES) devices. Several studies have been conducted that attest to the effectiveness of this technology in reducing the symptoms of a variety of mental health conditions (Bystritsky, Kerwin, and Feusner, 2008; Gilula and Kirsch, 2005; Gunther and Phillips, 2010; Lande and Gragnani, 2013). To date, CES devices have proven successful in treating posttraumatic stress in military veterans, postpartum depression in new moms, and insomnia, depression, anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain in others.
One such patented medical device being used by licensed health care professionals is the Fisher Wallace Cranial Stimulator. Invented by a pair of bioelectrical engineers from MIT and NASA in the 1980s and approved by the FDA in 1991, this noninvasive device stimulates the production of key neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine and simultaneously lowers cortisol by way of carefully controlled micro-electrical currents. Though the process sounds complex, the basic gist is that the electrical impulses administered during a typical CES treatment—20 minutes twice a day to start—trigger feelings of calm and relaxation.
As far as how cranial electrotherapy stimulation relates to the RDoC Project and neuroscience-based mental health research, Chip Fisher, president of Fisher Wallace Laboratories, says considering that CES devices are already FDA-approved and have been helping people for decades, he hopes to see increased awareness and use of the technology. “It’s just a matter of the right researchers coming along and studying it,” he said.
- Bell, V. (2013, September 21). Changing brains: Why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era. The Observer. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/sep/22/brains-neuroscience-prozac-psychiatric-drugs
- Bystritsky, A., Kerwin, L., and Feusner, J. (2008, March). A pilot study of cranial electrotherapy stimulation for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 69:3, 412–417.
- Gilula, M., and Kirsch, D. (2005). Cranial electrotherapy stimulation review: A safer alternative to psychopharmaceuticals in the treatment of depression. Journal of Neurotherapy, Vol. 9(2). doi: 10.1300/J184v09n02_02.
- Gunther, M., and Phillips, K. (2010). Cranial electrotherapy stimulation for the treatment of depression. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, Vol. 48, No. 11.
- Lande, G., and Gragnani, C. (2013). Efficacy of cranial electric stimulation for the treatment of insomnia: A randomized pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 21, 8–13.
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Research domain criteria (RDoC). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/research-priorities/rdoc/index.shtml
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