Treating Insomnia Through Brain Hacking

Insomnia can make falling asleep or staying asleep hard. Not getting enough sleep can cause many health problems. Bad sleep can also affect your mental health. Usually, behavioral therapy and drugs are used to treat insomnia.1

For some people, behavioral therapy and drugs may not work. As a result, doctors and researchers are looking for other ways to treat insomnia. Research shows that non-invasive brain stimulation might be an option.1-3

What is non-invasive brain stimulation?

Non-invasive brain stimulation is a way to stimulate a specific part of the brain. By activating certain parts of the brain, we can change how the brain works. In a way, this is like hacking the brain to make it better at doing something.1,2

Neuronal plasticity is our brain's ability to change. The structure and function of different parts of the brain can change in response to the environment. This is how we are able to learn new things. This also allows people to adapt after having an injury that changes how their body works. For example, if someone loses their sight because of an accident, then their brain will change by building new connections. This allows them to rely on other senses like hearing and touch in daily activities.2

Non-invasive brain stimulation aims to change specific parts of the brain by using different techniques. Since these techniques are not invasive, they can be done without the need for surgery. These techniques are usually pain free. In some cases, people may be able to do the treatment at home using a special device.1-3

How can non-invasive brain stimulation treat insomnia?

Different parts of the brain play a role in controlling when you are asleep and when you are awake. When someone has insomnia, these parts of the brain are likely not working properly. It could be that the part of the brain in charge of keeping you awake is overworking. It could also be that the part of the brain in charge of making you sleep is not turning on.1,3

Sleep is closely linked to mental health. Some mental health illnesses like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also cause insomnia. This also highlights the role of the brain in sleep.1

Research shows that non-invasive brain stimulation might be useful for treating insomnia. In people with insomnia, brain functions that control sleep are out of balance. By using non-invasive brain stimulation, it might be possible to tune these functions by activating certain parts of the brain. Experts believe that finding the right balance between these brain functions will improve sleep.1-3

Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques

There are 3 main ways to non-invasively stimulate the brain. These include:

Magnetic stimulation techniques

Transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magnetic fields to activate brain cells (neurons). It has been used to treat depression. But it is not commonly used to treat insomnia in a clinical setting because it requires a complex device.1,3

Electrical stimulation techniques

This set of techniques uses electrical current to stimulate the brain. The current is applied to 2 thin metal pins (electrodes) that are placed on the scalp. This set of techniques is simpler to use. It can even be used at home after you are trained by a healthcare professional. A few types of electrical stimulation techniques exist, such as:1,3

  • Transcranial direct current stimulation
  • Transcranial alternating current stimulation
  • Random noise stimulation

Auditory stimulation techniques

Transcranial ultrasound stimulation uses ultrasound waves to stimulate the brain. Using ultrasound allows for activating deep parts of the brain that might not be possible using other methods.1,3

In general, non-invasive stimulation to treat insomnia is a very new idea. Not many people have tried this treatment. More studies are needed to see how well it works for different people.1,3

More research is also needed to find the best technique to stimulate the brain to treat insomnia. Different people's insomnia may have different root causes. Because of this, non-invasive brain stimulation treatment might be different for each person.1,3

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