New Wave of Research May Replace Drug Development in Years to Come

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.

References:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Gunther, M., and Phillips, K. (2010). Cranial electrotherapy stimulation for the treatment of depression. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, Vol. 48, No. 11.
  5. 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.
  6. 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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  • LeeLee

    November 12th, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    Such great news! I know that there are many patients for whom medications have been their lifeline to a sense of normalcy but for others they have failed and we always have to be on the lookout for anything new that can help to improve quality of life for those who seem to be left behind. This sounds like it will be such a wonderful start in that direction for those who have never realized any improvement in how they feel simply via the use of medications. I understand that this could be years down the road but for many patients just to know that they haven’t been forgotten or left behind, I think that this could be very encouraging for them to know. It is certainly worth paying attention to and talking to their therapist about, especially if you have someone that you know and work with who is willing to think a little out of the box and who is dedicated to helping your mental health return to its optimum state without that one size fits all prescription that just doesn’t work for you.

  • Noah Rubinstein

    Noah Rubinstein

    November 12th, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    This is great news. Though, I’m sure big pharma will try to monetize neuroscience if they can.

  • LeeLee

    November 13th, 2013 at 4:43 AM

    @Noah, unfortunately, you are so right. And it is terrible that they have been allowed to really capitalize on everything that ills us, then hold you kind of captive to the things that could help make you better.

  • carson

    November 14th, 2013 at 4:46 AM

    If we all somehow find a way to stick together, this is something that I think a whole lot of people, particularly young people, will jump on the bandwagon for.

    Gone, hopefully, are the days when we thought that there was a magic pill that could cure us of all the things that are wrong with us.

    I think that more and more you will see people wanting to have a little more control over their own health and health care and I think that a large part of this is to wean ourselves from being so reliant on drugs and other pharmaceuticals. This is a step in the right direction.

  • James

    November 18th, 2013 at 4:59 AM

    It’s not like the pharmaceutical companies are going to be run out of business, they wield far too much power over health care in general to allow that to happen. This all comes down to us thinking about what we want in our bodies and changing our entire mindset as a people about how we want to deal with sickness. I think that a lot more people are now looking at interventions other than always the drug variet, but there are always going to be those who think that without a pill they will never heal.

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