Non-Invasive Nerve Stimulator Tamps Down Brainwaves That Cause Migraines

Study in rats shows that non-invasive stimulator works just as well as an implant and way quicker than drugs2

2 min read
Non-Invasive Nerve Stimulator Tamps Down Brainwaves That Cause Migraines
Photo: iStockphoto

Scientists in Boston say that vagus nerve stimulation—currently a treatment for epilepsy, but under investigation for a broad host of other ailments—suppresses the spread of an important neurophysiological phenomenon called cortical spreading depression. And it does it much faster than phramaceuticals.

Cortical spreading depression (CSD) occurs in migraines, and when it spreads to the brain’s occipital lobe, causes the “aura” some patients experience. The discovery lends scientific heft to the work being done by companies pursuing a device-based treatment for migraine headaches.

The spread of CSD in the brain is “like a pebble hitting the water. It ripples through the brain,” says J.P. Errico, CEO of Electrocore Medical, the Basking Ridge, N.J., company whose devices were used in the study. Prophylactic migraine medications work by reducing the excitability of the brain’s neurons—damping the ripples and making it harder for them to start in the first place.

[See “The Vagus Nerve: A Back Door for Brain Hacking,” June 2015]

The scientists, at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, performed identical experiments using either a stimulator with electrodes implanted on one of the two vagus nerves in a rat’s neck or using the GammaCore, Electrocore’s non-invasive stimulator that excites the nerve from outside the neck. Critically for Electrocore, both devices produced exactly the same effect.

img The gammaCore non-invasive vagus nerve stimulator. Illustration: Electrocore Medical

“This is a watershed moment for us,” says J.P. Errico, Electrocore’s CEO. The company had earlier shown that its stimulator reduced the level of an excitatory neurochemical called glutamate. “Glutamate reduction was a hint. This was a club over the head.”

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) raised the level of resistance to electrochemically triggered CSD threefold, according to the scientists. But the speed with which VNS acted is likely to give it a real advantage over today’s pharmaceuticals. CSD were suppressed a mere 30 minutes after stimulation, a “strikingly rapid onset of action compared to prophylactic agents, such as topiramate and valproate,” Dr. Cenk Ayata, the assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience at Massachusetts General who led the research, said in a press release. Those drugs typically take several weeks to achieve comparable results. Ayata and colleagues published their findings in the journal Pain.

Errico says Electrocore is involved in three major migraine trials now, and hopes to make the condition the company’s focus in 2017. It is now anticipating approval, in the first half of this year, of the Gamacore device for use in the United States to treat cluster headaches. Cluster headache is a different, and often more painful, condition than migraines. “It’s the worst pain known to science,” says Errico. 

This post was corrected on 13 January 2016.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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