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Anxiety, depression, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, and chronic pain are some of the most treatment-resistant of all diseases. A not-really-so-new technology, however, offers the possibility of turning them off with the flip of a switch.

In November of 2000 I was invited to a luxury retreat on the island of Hawaii. The organizers of the conference had assembled a group of some of the world's leading innovators in medical technology. It was a group ranging from a cardiologist who had figured out a way to restore heart function after heart attack for $50 to a Stanford quantum physicist who had taken the first photograph of chi to lowly reporters like me.

Also in the group was an electrical engineer from New Jersey who had developed a pulsating magnetic headband that could literally turn off anxiety, chronic pain, depression, and the tremors of Parkinson's disease.

Is It Really Possible to "Turn Off" a Neurological Condition with the Flip of a Switch?

I have lost touch with the inventor of the pulsating headband, Saul Lyss. Repeated attempts to locate and contact him before writing this article failed. I would not want to misrepresent his research by virtue of the fact I don't know how it progressed over the last 13 years. But the idea of deep brain stimulation has taken hold in conventional medicine and there are literally thousands of publications to explain it.

I'll stick to the example of treating Parkinson's disease with deep brain stimulation, because it's the condition I have observed personally. Turning off a neurological disease works something like this: 

  • An electrical current is delivered to a region of the brain known as the subthalamic nucleus. There are also other regions of the brain that can be stimulated, but most surgical procedures and most non-invasive devices target the subthalamic nucleus.
  • The current modulates the way cells in the subthalamic nucleus engage in "chatter." The current increases communications within these cells.
  • When the neurons in the subthalamic nucleus can "talk" to each other, they can relay signals from another area of the brain known as the basal ganglia. Then the brain can process signals that tell muscles how to move, or when to hold still.

Basically a "Brain Booster"

Deep brain stimulation is basically a brain booster. It is an electrical stimulus that helps damaged neurons in the brain perform normally.

There are numerous approaches to brain stimulation that don't involve electrical stimulation. It's possible to fit a Parkinson's patient with a mechanical exoskeleton, for example, to put loads on muscles that send signals to the brain that redirect the brain's "chatter" so the muscles move normally.

And, of course, there are drugs. Actually, this technology was invented about 50 years ago, but the success of L-dopa treatment in Parkinson's disease, or at least the apparent success of L-dopa treatment in Parkinson's disease, caused research efforts and research funding to be directed elsewhere. It's primarily after recognizing the side effects of L-dopa treatment that neurologist returned to deep-brain stimulation.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Naeser MA, Martin PI, Ho M, Treglia E, Kaplan E, Bashir S, Pascual-Leone A. Transcranial magnetic stimulation and aphasia rehabilitation. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2012.93(1 Suppl):S26-34.
  • Shafi MM, Westover MB, Fox MD, Pascual-Leone A. Exploration and modulation of brain network interactions with noninvasive brain stimulation in combination with neuroimaging. Eur J Neurosci. 2012 35:805-825.
  • Photo courtesy of lapolab on Flickr: