JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – News4JAX is taking a closer look at little-known therapies that use electricity as a non-invasive way to treat certain medical conditions.
Research suggests less intense ways to deliver electric currents to the brain can have real benefits for conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to PTSD and ADHD — and even schizophrenia and traumatic brain injuries. While more research is still being done, local patients and providers tell us the results they’ve seen are nothing short of life-changing.
One patient, who we are not identifying, tells us she started microcurrent neurofeedback therapy after straining under the pressures of a move, homeschooling her four children, and relationship issues. She said the stress resulted in rashes on her skin.
“My body basically was so stressed out that it was breaking down. It couldn’t handle anymore,” she said. “My brain was operating in a fight or flight state constantly.”
Desperate, she turned to microcurrent neurofeedback therapy with registered nurse Nicole Parker at Exusia Therapeutics. Parker attaches electrodes to clients’ scalps.
“I feel like melting,” the patient told us while receiving the treatment.
The electrodes are connected to software that monitors and analyzes the brain waves. Parker said she is looking for areas where electrical activity in the brain is overactive or underactive.
“We see a little elevation here which I knew we would because of the stress,” Parker said, pointing at her computer screen.
The electrodes also deliver the therapy.
“It sends little bursts of electricity that are about 5 billionths the power of one AA battery to those areas of dysregulation in order to balance the brain waves and gently nudge them into their pre-programmed frequency ranges,” Parker explained.
Parker put the electrodes on News4JAX reporter Anne Maxwell for a demonstration.
“But you see how with each exposure how that top red line will come down,” Parker showed Anne.
“So I’m getting those jolts now?” Anne asked.
“Yes,” Parker responded.
“I can’t feel it at all,” said Anne.
“You shouldn’t,” Parker said.
There can be some side effects from microcurrent neurofeedback.
“The most common ones would be a headache, irritability, feeling wired or extremely tired,” explained Parker.
She says the symptoms typically pass within 24 hours.
The device Parker uses has been classified by the Food and Drug Administration for 25 years as a relaxation device. The FDA identifies risks as temporary injury or impairment and/or ineffective stimulation. Advocates for the treatment say research on its therapeutic effects is limited but promising.
In a small 2017 study, military veterans with mild traumatic brain injuries who underwent the therapy saw their symptoms reduced by an average of 53%.
The patient News4JAX interviewed told us before she started treatment she was tense and struggling.
“Everything that had been traumatic in my life kind of felt like it had still just happened,” she told us.
She said microcurrent neurofeedback therapy helped her work through her trauma in ways talk therapy hadn’t.
“I had been in counseling prior and continued with counseling after I started seeing Nicole [Parker],” she said. “Talk therapy I think is helpful, but neurofeedback therapy helped me in a way that talking never did. It’s like it healed my brain from the inside without me having to speak about it.”
Parker says typically after 10 to 20 sessions, the brain learns how to regulate itself.
“Generally, my clients come to me after they have exhausted all other avenues of treatment and nothing else has worked or they don’t want to go onto a medication,” said Parker. “They’re looking for alternative therapies instead.”
Using stronger currents
UF Health is using stronger currents to power another kind of treatment for its patients — using an electromagnetic field that can heal.
Since 2021, UF Health Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Lewis has been treating patients with depression using transcranial magnetic stimulation, also known as TMS.
The FDA approved it in 2008 to treat depression that hasn’t responded to medication and therapy.
“We are stimulating directly underactive parts of the brain. Anti-depressants do this indirectly, right, by changing chemical balances,” explained Lewis.
But he says medication doesn’t work for about 50% of patients with depression — while TMS goes straight to the source.
“In our treatment-resistant depression, we’re seeing 80% to 90% of patients have remission of their depression,” Lewis said.
“Wow, so their depression is not there for the time being?” Anne asked.
“They are different people,” Lewis answered.
The therapy targets a patient’s brain with an alternating electromagnetic field to move electrons inside the skull that are constantly communicating. The same way an electromagnetic field can be used to spark a lightbulb, it can spark the underactive areas of a depressed brain.
There is lots of research being done all over the world in looking at using this technology to target everything from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorder to ADHD.
Patients come in for 19-minute sessions Monday through Friday for six weeks. Lewis says it’s not painful, and it doesn’t cause any impairment.
As for side effects, Lewis says patients might experience scalp irritation or a mild headache. He says there is a small risk of seizure — about 1 in 85,000.
“Why is it only used for treatment-resistant depression? You know, why do you need to try the drugs first before this?” Anne asked.
“This is a good question. So, the landmark studies of kind of how people respond to medications, right, were published before TMS was approved, and so it kind of was shuffled in at that bottom of that,” Lewis explained.
Lewis says it can take decades for newer and more expensive treatments to become accepted, but he says this treatment has the potential to help a lot of people in pain.
“There are over 20 million people with major depression in the United States and those are pre-pandemic numbers. And of those, anywhere from 30% to 50% are not going to respond to conventional treatments,” he said.
Lewis says the TMS treatment has helped dozens of his own patients and believes it will become standard treatment for multiple conditions over the next 10 years.
A big problem with these therapies is the expense. Lewis says even with insurance, a full TMS treatment can still cost about $1,000 out of pocket.
Parker says a full microcurrent neurofeedback treatment course, which typically isn’t covered by insurance, can cost about the same. She said she does accept payment plans.