Laura Bennett, a 59-year-old pediatrician in Long Island, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997, but her symptoms consisted mostly of numbness and tingling until about six years ago. That’s when she started to have trouble walking. She went from using a cane, to a walker, to a scooter. Her knee became so stiff that flexing it was “like trying to bend a lead pipe,” she said. These days, she can only leave her home with help or in a wheelchair.
The MS also left her with debilitating fatigue. Two years ago, her neurologist asked her if she’d consider something a little unorthodox: Zapping her brain with an electrical current, from the comfort of her own home.
The treatment was part of a study performed by Leigh Charvet, a neurologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. It was meant to see if transcranial direct current stimulation, a brain treatment also known as tDCS, could be used remotely to relieve the brain fog and oppressive fatigue that many MS patients suffer.
Each day for two weeks, Bennett would don a headband equipped with moistened sponges and attached to what she called a “big cellphone”—a tDCS stimulator. When she was ready to start the session, a clinician would give her a four-digit code to enter on a keypad, and the current would surge through the wires and into her brain.
In multiple sclerosis, the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system. Many of the disease’s symptoms, which range from pain to immobility, are managed with drugs. But fatigue is the trickiest one: Other than heavy-duty stimulants like Modafinil, patients have few options. And because MS can cause debilitating pain, it’s not feasible for patients to come to the clinic regularly. That makes at-home tDCS an even more appealing option.