Non-invasive brain stimulation, a new option for treating obesity, anorexia and bulimia
Photo: Unsplash / Hannah Morgan
Ainhoa Sorrosal
A study performed by the UOC investigates how this technique can reduce appetite and the desire for food

Non-invasive brain stimulation is emerging as a new therapy for treating eating disorders such as obesity, anorexia and bulimia. According to the preliminary results of the first tests performed with patients in a study led by Elena Muoz-Marrn, a professor at the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences, the treatment reduces appetite and the desire for food. The study's initial goal is to determine this technique's effect on patients with mild obesity (body mass index between 30 and 35); and then extend it, starting in May, to patients with morbid obesity or other eating disorders, such as anorexia. Dr Muoz presented the study's preliminary conclusions at the Congress on Obesity and Metabolic Complications, on Friday, 17 March, in Seville.

What does it consist of?

People suffering from eating disorders, such as obesity and anorexia, in spite of the distinctive features of each disorder, all share one factor in common: anomalies in the decision-making process regarding food intake. The experimental therapy consists of stimulating activity in a particular part of the brain – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – and decreasing activity in the cerebellum by applying a very small electrical current that the patient barely notices. "This is the first time in the world that a study has been performed in which one part of the brain is activated and another part is inhibited at the same time", says Muoz.

In the first phase, a sample of 8 patients aged between 25 and 50 treated at the Clnica Sagrada Famlia, in Barcelona, were recruited during the fourth quarter of last year. Each patient received two stimulation sessions lasting 20 minutes each on two days consecutively. "Brain activity was modulated in the areas of the brain that control decision-making and which modulate food intake", added the researcher, who is director of the University Master's Degree in Neuropsychology and co-director of Cognitive NeuroLab, the research laboratory specialized in cognitive neuroscience. After each of the sessions, the researchers assessed the patients' mood and how hungry they were and asked them to perform a cognitive task.

The second phase, which will be carried out from May to July, will include a score more patients, this time with morbid obesity (body mass index greater than 40).

A pioneering technique in eating disorders

Given these initial results, says Muoz, non-invasive brain stimulation seems to offer a good complementary therapy for conventional treatments of these disorders. She adds that it is a technique that offers "considerable potential": "it can help improve the patient's quality of life, it has virtually no side effects, it is not painful and it is very cheap and easy to administer. The simple stimulator costs about 6,000 euros. This means that it is affordable". Non-invasive brain stimulation is used to treat a number of diseases but it has yet to be established as a treatment for eating disorders. "In the case of obesity, this technique is largely unexplored", she adds.

The study is led by the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences, with doctors Elena Muoz-Marrn, Raquel Viejo-Sobera, Diego Redolar-Ripoll and Pilar Garca-Lorda. Dr Guillem Cuatrecasas, from the Clnica Sagrada Famlia's Endocrinology Department, and Dr Miguel Alonso-Alonso and Greta Magerowski, from Harvard Medical School, are also taking part in the study.



Photograph of Elena Muoz Marrn

Elena Muoz Marrn

Lecturer in the Health Sciences

Expert in: Cognitive stimulation in brain damage; basic psychological processes; transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Knowledge area: Neuropsychology, neuroscience and transcranial magnetic stimulation.

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