Neuroscientists at Emory University School of Medicine have discovered a focal pathway in the brain that when electrically stimulated causes immediate laughter, followed by a sense of calm and happiness, even during awake brain surgery. The effects of stimulation were observed in an epilepsy patient undergoing diagnostic monitoring for seizure diagnosis. These effects were then harnessed to help her complete a separate awake brain surgery two days later.
The behavioral effects of direct electrical stimulation of the cingulum bundle, a white matter tract in the brain, were confirmed in two other epilepsy patients undergoing diagnostic monitoring. The findings are scheduled for publication in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Videos of the effects of cingulum bundle stimulation are available, with the patient's identity obscured.
Emory neurosurgeons see the technique as a "potentially transformative" way to calm some patients during awake brain surgery, even for people who are not especially anxious. For optimal protection of critical brain functions during surgery, patients may need to be awake and not sedated, so that doctors can talk with them, assess their language skills, and detect impairments that may arise from resection.
Outside of use during awake surgery, understanding how cingulum bundle stimulation works could also inform efforts to better treat depression, anxiety disorders, or chronic pain via deep brain stimulation.
Lying under the cortex and curving around the midbrain, the cingulum bundle has a shape resembling a girdle or belt, hence its Latin name. The area that was a key to laughter and relaxation lies at the top and front of the bundle. The bundle is a logical target because of its many connections among brain regions coordinating complex emotional responses, Willie says.
The location of cingulum bundle stimulation is distinct from other brain locations that process reward, such as ventral striatum, which has been targeted for the treatment of depression and addiction. Because the cingulum bundle is a crossroads for white matter connecting several lobes, Willie and his team may be affecting widespread networks throughout the brain.
The researchers envision cingulum bundle stimulation as potentially applicable to surgery for brain tumors, as well as epilepsy.