11 year-old Hadley Lucca’s goals for each day sound simple. Like many other girls her age, she wants to bake cookies, put on earrings and tie her hair in ponytails.
Unfortunately, even normal everyday activities like these are difficult for her to perform without help, due to a condition she suffers from called hemiplegic cerebral palsy.
Hadley’s CP was caused by a stroke she experienced while only an infant. Due to the resulting brain damage, she has weakness and less coordination in the right side of her body.
Fortunately, a new study released last month measured the effects of mild brain stimulation and constraint therapy on children and young adults with cerebral palsy. And, it showed promising results, already helping some like Hadley overcome certain disabilities.
Study of Safety and Effectiveness of Brain Stimulation on Children
The study was conducted by Bernadette Gillick and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota Department of Rehabilitative Medicine. Knowing that mild brain stimulation combined with therapy has shown positive effects for disabled adults, they decided to see if safe levels could also benefit children and young adults.
Researchers followed 20 participants between the ages of 7 and 20 who suffered cerebral palsy around the time of birth from a stroke or oxygen deprivation. All of them had unilateral cerebral palsy, which is damage to one side of the brain that causes limited mobility on one side of the body.
For ten straight days, participants were given 20 minutes of either transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) or sham stimulation, after which they completed 100 minutes of rehabilitation exercises using constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT).
Transcranial direct current stimulation uses very low levels of electrical signals administered to the healthy side of the brain to block normal brain activity that would control motor function, in order to force the injured side of the brain to attempt control.
Constraint-induced movement therapy likewise restricts use of the arm, hand or leg on the functioning side of the body to try to force use of the injured side.
In this experiment, all 20 participants received some type of electrical brain stimulation to their motor cortex, the area that controls movement. However, half of them received normal levels of tDCS electrical stimulation, while the other half received very weak or brief stimulation (sham stimulation) designed to have little or no effect.
Results Showed Improvement At Any Level of Stimulation
Surprisingly, both groups experienced significant improvement in the use of their hands during the trial. There was no real difference based on the amount of stimulation received. However, those participants who did not have electrical communication between both sides of the brain altered saw the greatest improvement.
The researchers also reported that none of the participants experienced severe side effects other than occasional headaches, nausea, sleepiness or dizziness.
And how did 11 year-old Hadley fare? Like the other participants, she was asked before the start of the study what activities she’d like to be able to accomplish if able to regain use of her right arm. It was then that she said she’d like to do her own ponytails, put in her own earrings or bake cookies.
According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune report, Hadley experienced improvement towards all of her goals after the 2 week trial, and was happy to say she had learned to put in her own earrings without needing help from her mother!
No Widely Available Options Yet
Despite the positive results of the study and attention it has received worldwide, researchers caution that the sample size is extremely small and more testing is necessary to determine proper stimulation amounts and the existence of any long-term effects.
Therefore, Ms. Gillick cautioned parents against trying electrical stimulation outside of the constraints of a clinical trial.
However, with the benefits of low-level electrical stimulation having been measured for more than two decades on adults, and an increasing number of at-home brain stimulation kits available online, some parents are sure to push for faster development of treatment options.
Based on the latest study, DrugNews recommends anyone with interest in tDCS stimulation therapy for their child talk with their doctor about the existence of any new and larger clinical trials in which they may participate.
Gillick, B., et al. Transcranial direct current stimulation and constraint-induced therapy in cerebral palsy: A randomized, blinded, sham-controlled clinical trial. European Journal of Pediatric Neurology. (February 1, 2018). Retrieved from www.ejpn-journal.com
Ceres, C. Electrical Brain Stimulation Could Benefit Children with cerebral palsy, study finds. Minneapolis Star Tribune. (March 20, 2018). Retrieved from www.medicalxpress.com
Brain stimulation rehab may benefit unilateral CP patients. Retrieved from www.cerebralpalsynewstoday.com
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Cerebral Palsy is the most common form of childhood disability in America, affecting nearly 1 out of every 500 births and as many as a million young people at any given time.