THURSDAY, June 4, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- A wristband that zaps a key nerve may help quell the uncontrollable tics of Tourette syndrome, according to British researchers.
"We think we've come up with a safe and effective piece of technology that we believe is relatively cheap that will give control over tics to people with Tourette syndrome," said lead researcher Stephen Jackson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Nottingham.
Tics are involuntary movements and sounds such as throat-clearing, blinking and even blurting out swear words associated with the disorder. Researchers say a technique called brain oscillation helps suppress the rhythmic electrical brain activity associated with tics.
"By delivering electrical pulses to the peripheral nervous system, we reduced both the frequency of tics and their intensity, as well as the self-perceived urge to tic so many people report having before they tic," Jackson said.
Brain oscillation shuts down the brain impulses that cause tics and returns them to a quiet state, he said.
Jackson's team tested the approach in 19 people with Tourette syndrome who wore a specialized wristband.
Participants were randomly given a minute of constant electric pulses to their right wrist and one-minute periods with no stimulation.
Stimulation reduced the tics and also the urge to tic, the researchers found. The benefit was greatest in participants with the most severe tics.
And the stimulation had a cumulative effect, Jackson said. The more times it was used, the bigger the benefit.
The need for this type of treatment is crucial, he said.
Medications used to treat Tourette have side effects and only work in about half of patients, Jackson said, so many parents don't want their kids to take them. Another treatment, involving implantation of electrodes in the brain, is a surgical procedure with its own short- and long-term risks. And, he said, behavioral therapy can be hard to come by.
Jackson and his team are planning a larger trial with an aim of developing a wristband that patients can activate whenever they feel a tic coming on.
Dr. Alessandro Di Rocco, director of the movement disorders program at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y., reviewed the findings.
"This is an exciting study with an intriguing rationale and promising preliminary clinical data," he said, pointing to the disruptive effect that tics have on a person's personal and psychological well-being.
In recent years, a growing body of evidence has linked abnormal patterns of brain activity to the behavioral impulses associated with tics, Di Rocco said.
This has led to attempts to regulate the abnormal pattern with brain stimulation techniques, including invasive surgical interventions such as deep brain stimulation.
"While there is evidence that these techniques may be effective, neurosurgical intervention can lead to potentially serious complications, while other forms of external stimulation require expensive setup and can only be administered in a clinic setting," Di Rocco said.
Using this portable, seemingly easy-to-use device to stimulate the median nerve at the wrist may disrupt the abnormal brain activity and reduce tics with few risks or side effects, he said.
"If confirmed, this type of stimulation may become an innovative, inexpensive and transformative way to treat tics and possibly other involuntary movements associated with abnormal network activation," Di Rocco said.
The report was published June 4 in the journal Current Biology.
To learn more about Tourette syndrome, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.