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Spinal Cord Stimulation Could Treat Depression

A doctor placing a node on a patients spinal cord.
Credit: Colleen Kelley/UC Marketing + Brand.
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A pilot clinical trial led by University of Cincinnati researchers at the Lindner Center of HOPE found electrical stimulation of the spinal cord is feasible, well-tolerated and shows therapeutic potential to treat depression.

The results of the trial were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry on Dec. 20.

Research background

Principal investigator Francisco Romo-Nava, MD, PhD, said his research focuses on how brain-body communication is involved in psychiatric disorders.

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“We think that the connection between the brain and the body is essential for psychiatric disorders,” said Romo-Nava, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at UC, associate chief research officer for the Research Institute at the Lindner Center of HOPE and a UC Health physician scientist. “Many of the symptoms of mood disorders or eating disorders or anxiety disorders have to do with what one could interpret as dysregulation in this brain-body interaction.”

Romo-Nava said pathways of neurons located in the spinal cord convey information from the body to regions of the brain that are involved in the emotional experience we know as mood. When functioning properly, the brain uses this information to constantly make adjustments to help regulate a person’s mood.

While major depressive disorder can have many different causes, one contributor could be this pathway being overloaded with information.

“For example, chronic stress could lead to a hyperactive brain-body circuit that eventually burns the system out and prevents it from adjusting itself in an effective and optimal way,” Romo-Nava said.

The research team looked at different ways to modulate this interaction between the brain and body and developed a novel approach through noninvasive spinal cord stimulation. Romo-Nava obtained a patent in 2020 for the stimulation method used after working with UC’s Office of Innovation.

The spinal cord stimulation is designed to decrease the flow of information in the brain-body circuit so that the brain is better able to readjust and regulate itself.

“Spinal cord stimulation is thought to help the brain modulate itself as it should by decreasing the noise or decreasing the hyperactive signaling that may be in place during a depressive syndrome,” Romo-Nava said.

The investigational device that was used is no larger than a shoe box, with the active electrode placed on the patient’s back and the return electrode placed on their right shoulder.

Trial details

With funding through a Brain & Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Young Investigator Award, Romo-Nava designed the pilot study to test the feasibility and tolerability of spinal cord stimulation for patients with major depressive disorder.

A total of 20 patients were enrolled in the trial, with half randomized to receive the active version of the spinal cord stimulation and half receiving a different version of current that was not expected to have much of an effect.

Patients went to the Lindner Center of HOPE for three 20-minute sessions a week for eight weeks, for a total of 24 spinal stimulation sessions.

Trial results

Romo-Nava said like with most pilot studies, the primary focus of the study was the feasibility and safety of the intervention and how well patients tolerated the stimulation. The study was designed so that the dose of stimulation could be decreased if needed, but Romo-Nava said all patients tolerated the initially prescribed dose well.

“We used a current that is so small that it’s about 10 times smaller than the one known to induce tissue damage, so that’s also pretty encouraging because there’s a lot to explore in terms of what is the optimal dose and session frequency,” he said.

Side effects of the treatment were mild, including skin redness at the site of stimulation and brief non-painful itching or burning sensations that only lasted during the treatment sessions. The skin redness typically did not last more than 20 minutes after a session, Romo-Nava said.

A virtual reconstruction of how the current from the device moves through the body showed the current reaches spinal gray matter in the spinal cord, but does not reach the brain itself.

Reference: Romo-Nava F, Awosika OO, Basu I, et al. Effect of non-invasive spinal cord stimulation in unmedicated adults with major depressive disorder: a pilot randomized controlled trial and induced current flow pattern. Mol Psychiatry. 2023. doi: 10.1038/s41380-023-02349-9

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