IMG 8127All of us have taken medication before. Whether for an infection, allergies, or something chronic, we’ve all popped pills to treat our ailments, sometimes more than one at a time. But what if we lived in a world where pills were a thing of the past, and we could instead treat problems in our body with a noninvasive approach?

I think most of us would be interested in that.

Lauren Bolden is a Ph.D. candidate in the laboratory of Dr. Jerzy Szaflarski in the Medical/Clinical Psychology Program at UAB, and her research focuses on a new, noninvasive technique to help treat ailments. The technology is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and it’s already approved in the treatment of depression. Bolden’s work is taking TMS on a new challenge: epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a condition in which the brain cells become abnormal and overactive, resulting in seizures that can range from undetectable to physically debilitating. Epilepsy severely impacts the quality of life for patients; for example, in Alabama you have to be seizure-free for six months before you can get behind the wheel of a car. Imagine never being able to drive because you can’t go that long without a seizure.

Epilepsy affects 65 million people worldwide, and one third of those patients have what is called idiopathic generalized epilepsy – seizures with no apparent cause. The problem with generalized epilepsy is that it is difficult to determine which part of the brain is overactive, making traditional brain stimulation ineffective. To compound this, 30% of generalized epileptic patients are resistant to medications, necessitating better treatment options.

TMS is a device which utilizes a magnetic field to cause electric current to flow to the area of the brain it’s positioned at. Its typical usage is diagnostic – it allows clinicians to evaluate multiple neurological disorders. But following its approval for depression treatment a decade ago, more studies have emerged determining the benefit of TMS in other diseases.

Bolden’s work has first used TMS as a diagnostic tool to determine the relationship between cortical excitability and functions, such as mood and cognition. They have found that increased excitability is related to poorer mood and cognitive function in healthy individuals. She also found this relationship to exist in patients with generalized epilepsies. In addition, by using a one-time treatment of TMS in epilepsy patients with controlled and uncontrolled seizures, they’ve found that TMS had little side effects as a treatment, and briefly decreased seizure activity on EEG.

IMG 0020Bolden sees this project laying the groundwork for future studies in not only epilepsy, but other diseases as well.

“I have a particular interest in working with adult patient populations to improve cognition and mood through…therapy,” she says. “I see our findings being used to improve cognition and mood in other patient populations that demonstrate increased cortical excitability (i.e., ADHD, schizophrenia).”

It’s not an easy journey, though, as Bolden has faced challenges conveying to patients and their families how the research will help them. While promising, TMS as an approved treatment for epilepsy has a long way to go.

Fortunately though, there’s a passionate group here at UAB working to make TMS a real option for patients.

“I think my favorite part of this research is feeling as though I am working every day towards bettering patient’s quality of life,” Bolden says. “The more we uncover about the underlying mechanisms behind seizure control, cognition and mood, the quicker we will be able to improve patient’s symptoms and overall care.”

Bolden has made her mark on UAB and made strides in creating better options for epilepsy patients. She is preparing to defend her dissertation on this work, and will then take her skills to Harvard Medical School for her internship year in Clinical Psychology.