The new challenge
They’re the type of people who need reliable answers. For themselves, for their project, they needed to know: ‘How much does electrical muscle activity influence the results measurement of EEG?’ There was one way to find out: by paralysing people (stopping all their muscle activity) and then measuring their EEG.
In order to completely remove muscle- activity- interference from their trial, John and Kenneth needed to temporarily paralyse people while they were awake and run the same tests. It sounds like a nightmare situation, like waking up during surgery and being unable to communicate, with a tube down your throat. Understandably, volunteers for this experiment were hard to come by. In the end they found eleven people who agreed: six men and five women. That number dropped to six when half of the volunteers couldn’t tolerate the intubation tube, which would allow them to breathe and keep them alive during the paralysis. But it didn’t matter. John and Kenneth only needed a handful of people to do the experiment just once.
The remaining six volunteers (including John himself) were fitted with an EEG cap and the breathing tube and tested with during different activities: eyes open, eyes closed, finger movements tapping, reading, memory memorising words, and other mental and physical tasks. They communicated their answers by tapping a finger when needed. Then the paralysis was administered, but with finger movements in one hand preserved by using a high-pressure cuff, which stopped the paralysis getting to one arm. And then they did the whole thing again.
John describes the experience as ‘relaxing’—as strange as that sounds. The brain doesn’t necessarily realise the body is paralysed. The trial took place in a darkened room, where he was unmoving and comfortable, so John barely noticed he’d been paralysed. He didn’t feel panicked because he knew it was completely safe. People go through the same procedure every day during surgeries; it’s just that patients are usually unconscious by the time the paralysis takes effect. Still, John went first to make sure the mechanics of the experiment worked. He was more apprehensive about the data and what it was going to say, than the paralysis. Not that his wife agreed. There was disagreement in his household the night he told her what he planned to do.
When asked about the results, John will shake his head and say that they were ‘just ghastly.’ In the high EEG frequencies they were interested in recording, the signals picked up 200 times more muscle activity than brain activity. His first thought on seeing the results was, ‘We’ll just have to give up.’
Kenneth had a more hopeful reaction, saying ‘Let’s see what we find after removing as much as we can of the muscle activity from the EEG signals.’ This approach led the research team down a new path.
Since this turning point, Kenneth and the team have developed signal- processing methods that mean they can get a much broader look at what’s going on in the brain using processed electrical signals. What they found was that there were no significant data or other differences (electro-encephalographically-speaking) happening in the background in people with epilepsy. That theory died for good. However, they did find a change in the high frequency EEG results in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In doing so, their initial failure led to a new and worthy direction.
An important discovery for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
Tarun Bastiampillai advises that there is no blood test for any mental illness. Until now, sScientists have not found any biomarkers (i.e. a molecule, gene or other clue in the body to point to a disease or disorder) or other biological indicators for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. A biomarker would provide easier diagnosis and a better understanding of the basis of the illness. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder could be caused by brain inflammation or rewiring or an electrical-signalling or (a receptor) problem. Some researchers theorise that these very similar conditions are the same disorder presenting differently. There’s so much we simply don’t know. Finding the cause could lead to new and more targeted treatments.
Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are widely socially misunderstood and stigmatised. While mental health campaigns are growing in frequency, they usually raise awareness for depression and suicide. People with psychotic illnesses who are homeless, in a compromised boarding house, or in jail, need more help and compassion. In Tarun’s opinion, this is the group that is suffering a great deal. He’s happy to put his attention where it is needed.