Electromagnetic fields and the brain

Yesterday afternoon I visited Westmead Hospital and talked to a couple of psychiatrists on the use of electromagnetic fields in treating certain conditions. Treatments like the controversial but effective electroconvulsive therapy for depression, and transcranial magnetic stimulation for Parkinson’s and stroke, are becoming well used. However, there is little understanding of why they work. It’s a case of zapping a brain with an electric or magnetic field  improves a problem a patient is having, but no-one knows why.

The gap in knowledge here are at least three-fold. First, how does the electric field interact with neurons and what does it get them to do? There’s experimental data on how they respond, but the mechanisms of this are unclear. And then, when they do respond in the way they do, how does that lead to a change in neural connections? And finally, what is it about the neural connectivity that causes improvements in symptons of depression or Parkinson’s?

These questions are a mix of many different disciplines: molecular biology, neuroscience, mathematics, and, from my perspective, physics, and probably a good deal more.  Making progress on this question is going to require all of these skills. That’s why a cross-discipline collaborative approach is so important to making advances in science. Being on study leave gives me a good opportunity to explore some of these possibilities. Yesterday’s visit was certainly very enlightening in this regard.

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