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Study shows non-invasive electrical stimulation alters blood flow in brain tumours

In a first-of-its kind study, neurologists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) tested the use of non-invasive electrical stimulation as a novel therapeutic approach to brain tumours.

In an experiment published in Science Advances, the scientists - led by Emiliano Santarnecchi, PhD, principal investigator at the Berenson-Allen Center For Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation at BIDMC - demonstrated that applying low-intensity electrical stimulation to the brains of patients with tumours resulted in decreased blood flow within tumours while leaving the rest of the brain unchanged.

Although further study is needed, the findings suggest that a series of such treatments could modify tumour growth and progression.

"Many patients with brain tumours have limited therapeutic options, most of which come with severe side effects," said Santarnecchi, who is also an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.

"Our study found that electrical stimulation resulted in a significant reduction of blood flow to the tumour, with no changes in the rest of the brain. Given the safety profile of non-invasive brain stimulation, the ease of its application, its relatively low cost and the possibility of combining it with other drug-based therapies, our findings might lead to non-invasive therapeutic options for patients with brain tumours."

Non-invasive brain stimulation - also known as transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) - is a 20- year old, FDA-approved technology that is used to treat a number of psychiatric conditions, including treatment-resistant depression.

Low-intensity electrical fields are delivered to the brain through the skull via electrodes placed on the scalp.

While many researchers continue to investigate the safe and relatively low cost treatment's potential to treat psychiatric disorders and to enhance cognitive skills such as memory and concentration, this study represents the first time tES has been tested in patients with brain tumours.

Santarnecchi and colleagues recruited 50 patients with brain tumours willing to participate.

Given the delicate patient population, eight participants were able to complete the trial - six with glioblastoma, an aggressive tumour that originates in the brain, and two with metastatic tumours that originated in the lung.

The patients received transcranial stimulation while their brain blood flow was monitored using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

Based on prior research showing a reduction of blood flow in bodily tumours exposed to electric stimulation, Santarnecchi and team predicted that tES would have a similar effect on the brain tumours.

However, the team was surprised to see significant reductions in blood flow to the tumours after a single tES session.

No changes in blood flow or activity in the rest of the brain were observed, and none of the patients reported any adverse effects.

"This technique still requires further testing to optimise frequency and duration of treatment and to fully personalise protocols for individual patients," said Santarnecchi. "Future studies will investigate the impact of repeated tES sessions, evaluate the potential combination of tES with other cancer therapies and assess tES in other forms of brain tumours."

Source: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

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