In a pilot human study, researchers from the University of Minnesota
Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital show it is possible to
improve specific human brain functions related to self-control and
mental flexibility by merging artificial intelligence with targeted
electrical brain stimulation.
Alik Widge MD PhD,
an assistant professor of psychiatry and member of the Medical
Discovery Team on Addiction at the U of M Medical School, is the senior
author of the research published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
The findings come from a human study conducted at Massachusetts General
Hospital in Boston among 12 patients undergoing brain surgery for
epilepsy — a procedure that places hundreds of tiny electrodes
throughout the brain to record its activity and identify where seizures
In this study, Widge collaborated with Massachusetts General
Hospital’s Sydney Cash MD PhD, an expert in epilepsy research; and
Darin Dougherty MD, an expert in clinical brain stimulation. Together,
they identified a brain region — the internal capsule — that improved
patients’ mental function when stimulated with small amounts of
electrical energy. That part of the brain is responsible for cognitive
control — the process of shifting from one thought pattern or behavior
to another, which is impaired in most mental illnesses.
“An example might include a person with depression who just can't get
out of a ‘stuck’ negative thought. Because it is so central to mental
illness, finding a way to improve it could be a powerful new way to
treat those illnesses,” Widge said.
The team developed algorithms, so that after stimulation, they could
track patients’ cognitive control abilities, both from their actions and
directly from their brain activity. The controller method provided
boosts of stimulation whenever the patients were doing worse on a
laboratory test of cognitive control.
“This system can read brain activity, 'decode’ from that when a
patient is having difficulty, and apply a small burst of electrical
stimulation to the brain to boost them past that difficulty,” Widge
said. “The analogy I often use is an electric bike. When someone's
pedaling but having difficulty, the bike senses it and augments it.
We've made the equivalent of that for human mental function.”
The study is the first to show that:
A specific human mental function linked to mental illness can be
reliably enhanced using precisely targeted electrical stimulation;
There are specific sub-parts of the internal capsule brain structure
that are particularly effective for cognitive enhancement; and
A closed-loop algorithm used as a controller was twice as effective than stimulating at random times.
Some of the patients had significant anxiety in addition to their
epilepsy. When given the cognitive-enhancing stimulation, they reported
that their anxiety got better, because they were more able to shift
their thoughts away from their distress and focus on what they wanted.
Widge says that this suggests this method could be used to treat
patients with severe and medication-resistant anxiety, depression or
"This could be a totally new approach in treating mental illness.
Instead of trying to suppress symptoms, we could give patients a tool
that lets them take control of their own minds,” Widge said. “We could
put them back in the driver's seat and let them feel a new sense of
The research team is now preparing for clinical trials. Because the
target for improving cognitive control is already approved by the Food
and Drug Administration for deep brain stimulation, Widge says this
research can be done with existing tools and devices — once a trial is
formally approved — and the translation of this care to current medical
practice could be rapid.
“The wonderful thing about these findings is that we are now in a
position to conduct clinical trials to further demonstrate effectiveness
and then hopefully move to helping treatment-resistant patients who are
in desperate need for additional interventions to treat their
illnesses,” Dougherty said.
This work was supported by grants from the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA) under Cooperative Agreement Number
W911NF-14-2-0045 issued by the Army Research Organization (ARO)
contracting office in support of DARPA’s SUBNETS Program, the National
Institutes of Health, Ellison Foundation, Tiny Blue Dot Foundation, MGH
Executive Council on Research, OneMind Institute and the MnDRIVE and
Medical Discovery Team on Addiction initiatives at the University of
Minnesota Medical School.
Source: News Release
University of Minnesota Medical School
November 1, 2021