01 May 2007

A Whole Night's Sleep in Only An Hour--And Much More

Normal brain function creates electromagnetic fields, in various waveforms--depending upon the type and location of the brain activity. For a several decades, scientists have known that feeding electric currents and magnetic fields to the brain affected brain function--sometimes dramatically.

Rising star neuro-researcher Giulio Tononi has recently discovered how to use magnetic fields to stimulate slow wave brain activity typical of deep sleep.
During slow wave activity, which occupies about 80 percent of sleeping hours, waves of electrical activity wash across the brain, roughly once a second, 1,000 times a night. In a new paper being published in the scientific journal PNAS, Tononi and colleagues, including Marcello Massimini, also of the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, described the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to initiate slow waves in sleeping volunteers. The researchers recorded brain electrical activity with an electroencephalograph (EEG).

A TMS instrument sends a harmless magnetic signal through the scalp and skull and into the brain, where it activates electrical impulses. In response to each burst of magnetism, the subjects' brains immediately produced slow waves typical of deep sleep, Tononi says. "With a single pulse, we were able to induce a wave that looks identical to the waves the brain makes normally during sleep."

The researchers have learned to locate the TMS device above a specific part of the brain, where it causes slow waves that travel throughout the brain. "We don't know why, but this is a very good place to evoke big waves that clearly travel through every part of the brain," Tononi says.

Some clinicians hope to be able to use similar devices to create "power naps", perhaps generating the restfulness typical of a full night's sleep from only a one hour nap.

Melbourne scientists are using similar magnetic pulses to the brain to palliate symptoms of depression.
The researchers tested their combination technique on a group of 60 hard-to-treat patients, giving half of them 10 minutes of weak pulses before their standard 15-minute session on a daily basis for four weeks.

An electrical current was passed through a coil above the skull, creating a magnetic pulse which fires into the brain, changing the activity of nerve cells.

"A lot of people in this trial achieved clinical remission, and this is what matters," Prof Fitzgerald said.

"They were able to resume their normal lives, and often return to work."

Magnetic stimulation therapy has been around for about a decade and is used widely in Canada, but it is still regarded as experimental in Australia.

Deep brain electrical stimulation is also being used to treat depression as well as memory loss from brain degeneration including Alzheimer's, and perhaps eventually to create a type of seeing, for the blind, among other conditions.

Researchers in Canada have been studying effects of magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobe of the brain, using something they call a "God Helmet", because it sometimes triggers transcendent visions and epiphanies.

Because electromagnetic therapies do not use long acting pharmaceuticals, that often cause unwanted side effects, they may be useful for treating a wide array of "lifestyle" problems, such as insomnia, borderline depressions and anhedonia, conditions of sexual dysfunction, mild phobias, and many more behavioural problems.

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