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Brain Stimulation to Treat Anxiety

Brain stimulation may help to retrain unhelpful cognitive habits associated with anxiety and depression, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry.

The study revealed that around 20 minutes of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) applied to a region of the frontal cortex could dramatically improve the effectiveness of a computer-based task that retrains unhelpful patterns of attention that maintain high levels of anxiety.

Lead author Dr Patrick Clarke of The University of WA said that the cognitive retraining procedure, known as attention bias modification, had shown considerable promise as a treatment for anxiety disorders, depression and addiction, and may even help with overeating.

“It works by having people practise a simple task where they have to repeatedly ignore certain unhelpful information, such as angry faces or negative words, that would normally grab their attention,” Clarke said. “The more the task can help people to direct their attention away from this type of unhelpful information, the more benefit they tend to get from it in terms of lower anxiety.

“Our Oxford colleagues were previously able to identify an area of the frontal cortex that they believed could be responsible for the crucial change in attention that these tasks try to achieve. What’s particularly exciting about our study is that we’ve been able to show that delivering electrical stimulation to this same area can enhance the effectiveness of the training.”

tDCS can enhance activity in areas of the brain by applying a weak electrical current to the scalp.“There has been some research looking into tDCS as a stand-alone treatment for conditions such as depression, but our findings suggest that it might be best used in conjunction with specific cognitive training tasks, such as the one we used,” Clarke said.