Deep brain stimulation, which involves implanting electrodes in the brain, helps to alleviate problems with movement experienced by people with Parkinson’s disease.
“If putting in an electrode works, we thought training brains to self-regulate might work as well,” says David Linden at Cardiff University, UK.
To find out, Linden’s team asked 10 people with Parkinson’s to think about moving while having their brains scanned by fMRI for 45 minutes. Five were given real-time neurofeedback showing how well they activated a brain region that controls movement. Each participant was then told to practice such thoughts at home.
Two months later, movement problems including rigidity and tremor had improved by 37 per cent in the group that received feedback compared with no change in the rest. “Sending signals to brain areas normally deprived of input could be reshaping neural networks,” says Linden.
Roger Barker, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, points out that the treatment would not work for everyone with Parkinson’s disease. “If the person has a bad tremor then it would be difficult to get an image, while others don’t like being inside the scanners,” he says.
But he agrees that the technique could be a useful option for some, especially young people with the condition. “Young people don’t like taking medications [for Parkinson’s] because they can have side effects in the long term” such as uncontrolled movements and behaviour changes, he says. “It’s great to focus on non-pharmacological approaches.”