June 1, 2015 (Vol. 35, No. 11)
Most Mind Disorders Have a Common, Treatable Cause
After Yi Jin, M.D., graduated from Shanghai Medical University, his philosopher father was troubled when his son abruptly switched his specialty from cardiology to psychiatry. For Dr. Jin’s father, psychiatry was a fool’s errand because it was logically impossible for the mind to comprehend itself. “What makes you think you can use your dumb brain to figure out why it’s so dumb?” he asked his son.
Dr. Jin had to admit that his father had a point. By the 1980s when that conversation took place, psychiatry had made only minimal progress in the previous 30 years. Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, autism, panic attacks, depression, and generalized anxiety were stubbornly resistant to cures. Their symptoms could be masked with pharmaceuticals, but true progress in curing them had not progressed in a generation.
Dr. Jin took his father’s comment as a challenge. Since the existing approaches hadn’t led to cures, maybe an entirely different path was needed for understanding the brain and it’s illnesses. Having a background not only in medicine but engineering as well, Dr. Jin decided to look at the brain not just from a biological point of view, but from an electrical engineer’s perspective as well.
Dr. Jin had long been an admirer of 1950s cybernetics research led by Norbert Wiener, Ph.D., an MIT professor. Dr. Wiener had demonstrated that computers only work effectively when they have an internal clock that synchronizes the flow of information. If the signals aren’t synchronized, information becomes degraded or chaotic.
Dr. Wiener had discovered that the normal human brain’s internal clock is set to a range of roughly 10 Hz (cycles per second), known as alpha EEG wave. Dr. Jin’s research showed that when the sinusoidal oscillations are close to this range, and when they are perfectly regular, i.e., the billions of neurons in the brain are working together, the energy needed to maintain the sinusoidal waves is minimal. However, when multiple irregular frequencies intermingle, the energy needed to maintain the system increases drastically. At some point, the signal disappears entirely.
Engineering Studies Pay Off
Dr. Jin became fascinated by Dr. Wiener’s work and wondered if it might provide an insight into mental health. What if all the different mental illnesses were like branches of a tree, stemming from one central trunk, with the trunk being a disturbance in the brain’s ability to synchronize the billions of pieces of information flowing through it?
In 1987, Dr. Jin’s growing interest in the brain-as-machine collided with an important piece of personal good luck. His appointment as a researcher in the department of psychiatry at the University of California-Irvine meant access to electroencephalography (EEG) instruments and the only PET scan equipment owned by any department of psychiatry in the world.
Having a PET scan system gave Dr. Jin “the very luxurious opportunity” of studying energy flows in the brain by tracking glucose metabolism while simultaneously recording brain waves using EEG equipment. He now had the capability of measuring energy processing as it interacted with signal processing in the brain. In other words, he was now able to look at the physical properties of the brain in real time as if it were a functioning central processing unit of a computer.
“I was collecting a whole lot of data,” he said, “and the data surprised me.” What was surprising about his data is, up until Dr. Jin’s results, people had assumed that a higher metabolic rate in the brain would correlate with better brain function; instead, Dr. Jin found that higher metabolic rates together with less rhythmical brain waves (and therefore a less efficient neural system) correlated with a variety of mental disorders including: ADHD, panic attack, schizophrenia, autism, PTSD, and memory loss.
The data may have been surprising, yet from a physics point of view, it made sense. “In physics,” says Dr. Jin, “we know that the higher the energy level, the less stable the system. We were seeing that individuals with conditions such as PTSD, autism, anxiety, or schizophrenia all share a common physical state in which the energy metabolism of the brain is too high.”
According to Dr. Jin, there’s a match between the cause of these illnesses and their symptoms. “An individual with a higher glucose metabolism rate may unconsciously try to calm things down and get to a more stable state. They may do this by withdrawing, and staying away from situations where there is information overloading.”
Dr. Jin had found that too much of irregular high frequency brain waves were associated with mental illness, but he soon found that a too-low frequency was also problematic. Abnormally low frequency, turned out to be correlated with major depression, Alzheimer’s, and being comatose.
“In individuals at resting conditions, 95% of the waves are within the range of 8 to 12 Hz,” he says. “Those outside this range are subject to neuropsychiatric illness.” Since he was by now convinced that abnormal energy flows in the brain were markers of mental illness, his next question was, “If we could alter the brain waves and bring them into the middle portion, might we see the symptoms disappear?”
It was the beginning of a decade’s long quest to find a way to influence the too-high or too-low energy flows. “We tried so many ways to get there, including repetitive light flickering, sound stimulation, and mechanical tapping,” he says, “but none proved effective.”
Finally in 1997, Dr. Jin came across something that turned out to work not only in theory, but also in practice. While researching depression with the late Earl Cowen, M.D., from the University of Maryland, Dr. Jin came across magnetic resonance therapy (MRT). He saw how it could stimulate dopamine and help alleviate depression.
This led him to wonder if similar repetitive magnetic pulses could entrain and organize miss-timed brainwaves. He was hoping that carefully timed pulses could bring about order in neural processing in the same way that in a football stadium, a cheerleader can guide random clapping into rhythmic applause.
Dr. Jin and his medical and engineering colleagues developed a machine to create gentle, finely tuned electric currents that are induced in the tissues. Using these electromagnetic triggers they could change brain activity, organizing and modulating the brain waves into the normal range.
They were accomplishing this neural modulation without the need for surgery or medication. They were able to spur low-energy brains to become more energetic by slightly perturbing the EEG oscillation and equally, they were able to guide abnormally high energy brains to calm down by establishing a more consistent rhythm. The procedure they developed is noninvasive and painless with virtually no side-effects.
Five years ago Dr. Jin opened the Brain Treatment Center (BTC) in Newport Beach, CA. In the years since, over 4,000 individuals have been treated and, during this time, success stories have been accumulating.
According to Robert Silvetz, M.D., chief science officer at BTC and a man whom Dr. Jin refers to as a genius, “For the first time we have unified a majority of mental disorders under one mechanism, that mechanism being disorder of central synchrony. Therapy amounts to restoring synchrony through noninvasive neuro-modulation. And it works. Beautifully. In the autism study 50% of the autistic children were restored to neuro-typical.”
Separately, the NIH is currently recruiting participants for a clinical trial to evaluate the efficacy of MRT in post-traumatic stress disorders.
In the end, Dr. Jin’s father underestimated him. His son’s “dumb brain” has contributed importantly to our understanding of the human brain and our ability to treat mental illness.