For epilepsy patients experiencing success on TNS, the device has been life-changing. “I was getting 20 seizures a month when I started using it, and now I’m down to eight,” says Walter Cortes, 29, of Reseda, California, who participated in the study. When Cortes was hospitalized for a case of pancreatitis caused by one of his epilepsy medications, he suspended his use of the device, and the seizures returned in full force. “That’s when I realized that machine was something special.”
Beyond suppression of seizures, many in the TNS trial reported an improvement in mood. (Epilepsy patients commonly suffer from depression.) “The trigeminal nerve projects to a brain-stem structure that produces norepinephrine, which regulates mood, attention, and anxiety,” DeGiorgio says. When the TNS device was tested in a small trial on treatment-resistant depression, it showed such promising results—with four out of five patients going into remission after eight weeks of nightly TNS treatment—that a larger 20-person study is now under way. “The technology is so elegant and simple that it’s almost hard to believe,” says Ian Cook, the psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher at UCLA who’s heading the depression trials.
The current trials use an off-the-shelf stimulator, but startup NeuroSigma has licensed the approach. The company is now developing a proprietary device, working with researchers on clinical trials for epilepsy, depression, and PTSD, and developing an implantable version for patients who find relief with the temporary one.