1 in 5 Americans lives with some form of mental illness. Through a combination of medication and psychotherapy, many can effectively manage these conditions. For others, however, the available options come with intolerable side effects or simply don’t work. As many as 30% of people with depression and 40% of those with anxiety, do not respond to first line treatments.
For those still struggling with the daunting problem of mental illness, neurotechnology offers innovative new solutions. Indeed, researchers and entrepreneurs are now exploring the use of brain tech to treat a number of psychiatric conditions, ranging from anxiety and depression to obsessive compulsive disorder and PTSD.
Deep brain stimulation
The brain works by sending electrical and chemical signals through its cells. Traditional psychiatric medications (e.g., Prozac, Xanax, Ritalin, lithium, etc.) work by interacting with or mimicking the brain’s chemical signals. Now, researchers are beginning to pursue neurotech solutions that more directly interact with the brain’s electrical properties.
One of the more successful innovations of this kind is deep brain stimulation, or DBS. This technique involves the implantation of a “stimulator,” which delivers electrical impulses to a targeted brain region. Like a pacemaker for the brain, DBS is thought to correct irregular firing in a particular group of neurons. The technology has been used to treat debilitating depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as Parkinson’s disease.
Since DBS requires brain surgery, it’s reserved exclusively for people with severe illness–for example, those who struggle with intense suicidal thoughts and who have not been helped by other treatments. For more mild mental illness, the risks of surgery likely outweigh potential benefits. Therefore, recent advances in noninvasive neurotechnology–devices that work from outside the head–have inspired hope for treating a wider range of conditions.
Thankfully, it is indeed possible to alter the brain’s electrical dynamics without drilling into the skull. Such is the goal of transcranial brain stimulation, which includes cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). These techniques stimulate the brain by delivering a gentle electrical current through the scalp. Transcranial stimulation has been used to treat depression and also shows promise for the management of anxiety and PTSD.
While this technology was originally limited to use by doctors, at-home options are now becoming available. Like psychiatric medications, it is generally recommended that these devices be used in combination with psychotherapy.
Whereas the above innovations are forms of brain stimulation technology, neurofeedback takes advantage of brain recording technology. The goal of this technique is to adjust certain patterns of thought by helping users recognize the corresponding patterns of brain activity. For example, someone with an attention disorder might wear a cap with electrical sensors as she plays a special video game; the game would then deliver the player real time feedback about her level of attention, with the goal of helping her improve it.
Like brain stimulation technologies, neurofeedback is now migrating from the clinic to the home, thanks to improvements in consumer technology. Researchers are currently exploring the use of neurofeedback for treating a number of disorders, including anxiety, insomnia, and PTSD. Though something like DBS will continue to be reserved for a relatively narrow population, the low risk profile of neurofeedback makes it an attractive option for almost anyone seeking a new way to improve their mental wellbeing.
The future of mental health tech
Neurotechnology represents a promising new avenue for treating mental illness. Many people are already benefiting from this class of tech, and many more stand to benefit as the category expands and improves. In the near future, the introduction of at-home devices, in combination with telehealth, will make treatment possible for people who may not have access to local mental health providers or who do not respond to medication.
In the further future, the role of invasive neurotechnology will likely expand as well. With each passing year, our ability to record from and stimulate the brain becomes increasingly precise. This progress may allow doctors to treat a larger number of psychiatric illnesses with implantable devices. And as these devices become more safe and commonplace, they may be pursued by a wider range of patients.
Of course, additional research–and, in many cases, FDA approval–will be required before these technologies become mainstream. Still, given the high rates of treatment resistance, neurotechnology is a timely and welcome addition to the existing arsenal of treatments for psychiatric illness.
Neurotechnology is already helping to treat mental illness on a small scale. Many more people will benefit from brain tech when it is offered in everyday devices, such as headphones, that are easy and intuitive to use.