Posted: Friday, February 12, 2016 – 3:06 PM
PHOTO CAPTION: Retired Army sergeant Ron Ramirez with the trigeminal nerve stimulation patch to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and Dr. Andrew Leuchter. Photo by Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
An average of 30 years had passed since the traumatic events that had left them depressed, anxious, irritable, hypervigilant, unable to sleep well and prone to nightmares.
But for 12 people who were involved in a UCLA-led study — survivors of rape, car accidents, domestic abuse and other traumas — an unobtrusive patch on the forehead provided considerable relief from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re talking about patients for whom illness had almost become a way of life,” said Dr. Andrew Leuchter, the study’s senior author, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and director of the neuromodulation division at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Yet they were coming in and saying, ‘For the first time in years I slept through the night,’ or ‘My nightmares are gone.’ The effect was extraordinarily powerful.”
The research, which published last month in the journal Neuromodulation: Technology at the Neural Interface, revealed the first evidence that trigeminal nerve stimulation, or TNS, holds promise for treating chronic PTSD.
Based on the study, which was conducted primarily with civilian volunteers, the scientists are recruiting military veterans, who are at an even greater risk for PTSD, for the next phase of their research.
TNS is a new form of neuromodulation, a class of treatment in which external energy sources are used to make subtle adjustments to the brain’s electrical wiring. The approach is gaining popularity for treating drug-resistant neurological and psychiatric disorders.
TNS harnesses current from a nine-volt battery to power a patch that is placed on the user’s forehead. While the person sleeps, the patch sends a low-level current to cranial nerves that run through the forehead, sending signals to parts of the brain that help regulate mood, behavior and cognition. Previous research has shown abnormal activity in those areas of the brains of PTSD sufferers.
PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of the U.S. population and a much higher proportion of military veterans. Sufferers often have difficulty working with others, raising children and maintaining healthy relationships. Many try to avoid situations that could trigger flashbacks, which makes them reluctant to socialize or venture from their homes. People with the disorder are six times more likely than their healthy counterparts to commit suicide, and they have an increased risk for marital difficulties and dropping out of school.
For the study, the researchers recruited people with chronic PTSD and severe depression who were already being treated with psychotherapy, medication or both. While continuing their conventional treatment, the volunteers wore the patch while they slept, for eight hours a night. The severity of participants’ PTSD symptoms dropped by an average of more than 30 percent, and the severity of their depression dropped by an average of more than 50 percent, the study reports. In fact, for one-quarter of the study subjects, PTSD symptoms went into remission. In addition, study subjects generally said they felt more able to participate in their daily activities.
“This could be a breakthrough for patients who have not been helped adequately by existing treatments,” said Leuchter.