HCMC doctor develops stimulation treatment for brain injuries, clinical trials underway

- It’s a simple little device, but it holds so much promise. And if it’s proven to work, it’s possibly a huge game-changer in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries, also called TBI’s.

“It’ll be interesting to see if it works here,” Dr. Uzma Samadani said. “I’m reasonably confident that it will.”

Dr. Samadani is the head of the Brain Injury Research Lab at Hennepin County Medical Center, who began early last year the largest ever study of concussions and brain injuries ever done, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota.

A big part of their research is finding better ways to diagnose brain injuries and more precise ways to classify their severity. But the clinical trial that has just gotten underway will see if those injuries can be helped by a simple at-home treatment that uses electricity to stimulate the key nerve that heads into the brain.

“I’ve been working on this a long time. I’ve been wanting to do this for 11 years,” said Dr. Samadani. "I wrote a grant about this in 2006 because there was really compelling data from animal studies, from mouse studies, from rat studies and, also, there were compelling studies from humans with epilepsy and depression.”

The treatment involves what is called the Gammacore, a device about the size of a deck of cards which sends electrical impulses through the skin of your neck and stimulates the Vagus nerve. Implantable devices have already been used much the same way to stimulate that same nerve for seizures. But this would be a huge step forward, since it does not involve surgery.

The treatment is simply two minutes of electrical stimulation twice a day. The reason researchers believe it will work is because the same treatment is already used in Europe to treat migraines and cluster headaches, and the mechanism of those conditions in the brain is similar to the pain and depression experienced by brain injury patients.

So far, two brain injury patients have begun the treatment, which will last several months. In total, researchers want to enlist 30 patients, half given working Gammacore units and half given non-working units, essentially the placebo in this study. Very few people will know which patient has which treatment. They hope to have results compiled by early summer.

If this treatment can replace medications for pain, Dr. Samdani hopes it’ll help stem the tide of addiction from prescription pain-killers used on brain injury patients. And, it holds the potential to actually help heal the brain with simple electricity.

“It would be huge because there’s nothing else that’s really been validated for a brain injury.”

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