NIH study finds noninvasive electrical brain stimulation has potential to fight obesity

An NIH study came out in support of transcranial direct current stimulation, prompting the agency to say that the noninvasive stimulation technique has the potential to promote weight loss.

The neurostimulation technique is very easy to perform and requires only common batteries and electrodes. This has made it a popular form of "do-it-yourself" therapy using homemade devices that "zap" the brain.

tDCS' sudden popularity makes studies like this important to ensure the devices' safety and efficacy, as the FDA and medical community grapple with how to regulate and monitor the technology. Overall, data proving the therapy's effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) is lacking.

All 9 patients in the NIH study ate a weight-maintaining diet for 5 days prior to receiving either real or sham tDCS. The control group consisted of four patients who received two sessions of sham stimulation over the course of three days, while the treatment group received sham stimulation on the first session and real stimulation to the part of the brain controlling behavior (the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) on the second session.

The control group ate the same amount following both (fake) stimulation sessions, while the treatment group ate an average of 700 fewer calories and lost an average of 0.8 pounds.

None of the patients were aware of which group (treatment or control) they were in and resided at the metabolic ward of the NIH's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases for 8 days. They ate and drank to their desire using food and drink provided by computerized vending machines.

More details about the study can be found in the latest edition of the journal Obesity.

The NIH said more information is needed to draw a definitive conclusion and plans another study consisting of two groups, one receiving only real stimulation and the other receiving only sham stimulation.

The Thync system

In 2013, a 120-person study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that direct currents applied to the cranium can boost the effectiveness of antidepressants. But a more recent test of a CE-marked tDCS device found that the therapy impairs memory.

Meanwhile Silicon Valley startup Thync is selling a tDCS that patch apparently improves mood after being applied to the side of the forehead for just a few minutes.

- read the release from the NIH
- here's the paper abstract

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