The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increased prevalence of mental illness. It has led to bottlenecks in the treatment system, with ever-growing waiting times for psychotherapeutic treatments. What’s more, psychoactive drugs are heavily dependent on well-functioning global supply chains. It seems more important than ever to find alternative approaches to resolving the mental health crisis.
Medical innovation: non-invasive brain stimulation in the EU
The use of non-invasive brain stimulation methods — using electrical or magnetic energy to influence brain activity — has been shown to be effective in treating a wide variety of mental and neurological illnesses and could therefore potentially revolutionize the treatment landscape for mental illnesses. An essential step towards taking advantage of its potential is gathering all of the stakeholders’ different perspectives on the technologies and integrating these views into future decision-making processes in this area. It is for this reason that the Center for Responsible Research and Innovation (CeRRi) within the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO has been working with international partners to develop recommendations for using non-invasive brain stimulation practices, which have now been published in a white paper. The white paper, entitled “STIMCODE. Participative developed recommendations for non-invasive brain stimulation in the European Union,” can be seen as a sort of blueprint for the future of non-invasive brain stimulation. The process of developing the recommendations began with the needs and concerns of various stakeholder groups, who exchanged views and collaborated in interdisciplinary workshops, led by the Fraunhofer IAO research team. The participants included patients, medical students, psychologists, neurologists, those administering the treatment, people using the technology in the privacy of their own homes, representatives from industry, and experts on neurophilosophy and healthcare regulation and law.
“The participative process brought up many issues that are otherwise often overlooked, such as the ergonomics of a treatment setting and the lack of access to reliable information,” explains Dr. Moritz Julian Maier, project manager in the CeRRI within Fraunhofer IAO. He points out that it is essential to strike a balance between scientific discourse and the experiences of the people affected. The main thing that many patients wanted was a simple and safe way of using non-invasive brain stimulation at home to improve their health and wellbeing.
Participative research to stimulate political change
“To achieve greater and more rapid innovation in the area of non-invasive brain stimulation, funding needs to be actively directed towards new types of collaboration between science and industry and a legal framework established that will provide stakeholders with security for their research,” says Prof. Katharina Hölzle, institute director of Fraunhofer IAO. Internationally uniform legal regulations are key to making this possible. The path toward this has been laid by the work of the committee of international experts, who worked together to discuss the recommended actions in detail and to compile them. Now it is over to the politicians, health authorities and research funders to follow suit and foster the environment for greater use of non-invasive brain stimulation methods in future treatment of illnesses.