From silencing snoring to easing depression, how doctors are using jolts of electricity to improve our health
00:54 GMT, 22 May 2012
Every day, scores of patients across the UK receive electric shocks from their doctor.
We’ve all been warned about the dangers of electricity, but now minor shocks are being used to treat a vast range of conditions.
Some forms of electrical treatment are well-established — such as TENS machines for pain during labour, and pacemakers for a dicky heartbeat — but there are myriad new uses, from treating diabetes to incontinence.
Snoring: Stimulation of the nerve that controls the muscles of the tongue can cut the severity and symptoms of sleep apnoea by 60 per cent
In many cases, the stimulation interferes with the electrical impulses that pass between the brain and the body to block pain signals.
In other cases, stimulation works directly on nerves that control muscles to increase or reduce their activity.
One major advantage of electrical stimulation is it has few side-effects because it’s a localised treatment — meaning it can be used in conjunction with other therapies.
There is increasing interest in these electrical devices, says Dr Nicholas Silver, consultant neurologist at the Walton Centre in Liverpool and clinical lecturer at Liverpool University.
‘Stimulator devices are emerging as a safe and effective option for patients who do not respond to other treatments. It is truly a very exciting time.’
Here, we reveal the conditions that can be treated with a jolt of electricity…
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
Our blood pressure is largely controlled by sensors in the carotid artery in the neck, which carries blood to the brain.
These signal to widen or narrow blood vessels, controlling the pressure.
Activating these sensors with electrical stimulation can lower blood pressure in patients who don’t respond to medication.
Electrodes implanted in the neck send mild electrical pulses to the sensors, which in turn widen the blood vessels and reduce blood pressure.
In one study, University of Chicago researchers found a reduction of greater than 20 mmHg in 69 per cent of patients (normal blood pressure is 120/80 mmHG).
Dr Chris Morley, a consultant cardiologist at Bradford teaching hospitals, says: ‘It is very important to look at developing non-pharmacological treatments like this for patients with high blood pressure, particularly those for whom tablets do not work, those who have difficulty complying, and those who have side-effects.’
Forget diets — stimulating your scalp with electricity could help you lose weight. Scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health have found that doing this over the area of the brain that controls fullness can reduce the amount people eat.
The 40-minute painless therapy is carried out three times a week for a month — the electrodes are placed above the front-left area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is be less active in obese people.
Researchers also found that in women who have lost weight and maintained the loss, the activity in this area after a meal is similar to that of lean women, suggesting weight loss improves brain activity in this area.
Cystitis affects 400,000 Britons and is notoriously difficult to treat
An implant that delivers electrical stimulation to the tail bone is being used to treat chronic (or interstitial) cystitis.
This painful condition, which triggers a frequent and urgent need to urinate, affects 400,000 Britons and is notoriously difficult to treat. But researchers have found that electrodes may help.
In one study, patients improved by more than 50 per cent.
Furthermore, the results suggests the therapy may work for about half of people with the condition.
University of Toronto researchers said the implant blocked pain signals in the nerve that travels between the bladder and brain.
Delivering mild electrical impulses to leg muscles for an hour a day strengthens muscles and speeds up blood flow in patients with heart failure, according to new research.
Exercise boosts the health of heart failure patients (keeping the heart stronger for longer), but many patients are physically unable to do this.
However, stimulating the muscles in the thighs and calves of patients has been shown to have a similar effect to exercise. In a study at the University Hospital of Bourgogne in France, both blood flow and muscle improved.
‘Low-frequency electrical stimulation may improve muscle strength and blood supply, and could be recommended for patients with severe heart failure,’ say the researchers.
This condition, characterised by a ringing, buzzing or whooshing in the ears, affects around one in 20 people.
Scientists have found that these sounds can be minimised with an implanted electrode in the neck. The gadget sits near to the vagus nerve, which travels up to the brain.
Early studies show it triggers nerve activity in the brain that acts to ‘distract’ it from the ringing noise. The treatment is undergoing clinical trials at University Hospital Antwerp.
A type of pacemaker implanted in the stomach may lower blood sugar in diabetics. The device emits impulses to boost stomach muscle activity when a patient is eating.
Studies suggest this stimulates the production of insulin, which lowers blood sugar.
Around 230 patients have had the device implanted, and a study at the Medical University of Vienna showed that after three months blood glucose had fallen by a quarter. Patients also lost an average of four to five kilos (8lb to 11lb).
Electrically stimulating a nerve in the foot may seem an unlikely way to tackle incontinence, which affects one in 20 men and more than one in ten women at some point.
The handheld Urgent Neuromodulation System stimulates the tibial nerve, which travels up the leg, connecting to the nerve that controls bladder muscles and stops them contracting too often.
In one trial, reported in the Journal of Urology, 220 adults had 12 weeks of treatment or a placebo. Results showed 55 per cent of patients had improvement compared to 21 per cent who had the sham therapy.
Scientists have developed a device that opens the airways when held against the neck.
The gadget, which could also be used to treat anaphylaxis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, delivers small electric shocks through the skin to the vagus nerve.
This nerve controls the muscles in the airways, and electric signals cause them to relax, which widens the airway.
Pilot studies at the University of Washington in the U.S. show the device increased the amount of air in patients’ lungs by 40 per cent.
Electrical stimulation of the scalp can improve recognition and memory in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, according to research from the University of Milan.
Scientists applied weak electrical currents to the head to boost activity in the temporoparietal areas of the brain, associated with word processing. Brain performance increased by nearly 20 per cent with the active treatment.
Stimulation of the nerve that controls the muscles of the tongue can cut the severity and symptoms of sleep apnoea by 60 per cent.
This condition causes the tongue and soft tissues in the throat to collapse and partially block the airway.
The device is programmed to work only when the patient is asleep, or can be turned on and off by a remote control.
The electrodes cause the tongue muscles to contract, preventing it falling back into the throat.
Professor Jim Horne, of the Loughborough University Sleep Centre, says: ‘This can be effective in patients where other treatments have failed (especially those involving nose or face masks). The technique is mostly used in the U.S.’
Serotonin is thought to be low in those who suffer from depression
Doctors are using battery-powered devices attached to the scalp that deliver mild stimulation to areas of the brain that control mood.
Research at the Medical University of South Carolina suggests the therapy, which targets the prefrontal cortex — an area at the front of the brain — produces an improvement in two-thirds of patients.
Those who responded to the therapy continued to have significant benefits two years later.
Why it works is not clear, but one theory is it stimulates blood flow to parts of the brain which trigger a rise in serotonin.
This compound is thought to be low in those who suffer from depression, and many antidepressants act to increase this.
Electrical stimulation is increasingly used for migraine and cluster headaches.
However, doctors have realised that it can also treat facial pain, which affects one in 20 people at some point and can vary from a dull ache to a burning pain.
It is usually caused by faulty signals in the trigeminal nerve, which travel to the face from the base of the brain.
According to researchers, high frequency electrical stimulation with an implanted electrode blocks these pain signals, and instead the discomfort is felt as painless tingling, or in some cases not at all.
Barts Hospital in London is testing the therapy on patients with face pain who have failed to respond to drugs.