Have Swansea University academics got the solution to bad moods and feeling stressed?

Everyone experiences emotional ups and downs. Life today is fraught with many stressful situations which can lead to irritability, stress, agitation and moodiness

But brain scientists and psychologists at Swansea University are developing a new technique which can reduce the impact of stress on mood and help improve your emotional wellbeing.

Dr Frederic Boy, who works at both the College of Human and Health Science and the School of Management at the university, is leading the research. And his work is already receiving international interest in the short period since his paper was published in scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Dr Boy, who is originally from Provence and has lived in Swansea for the past four years, said: “When facing stressful events, the frontal regions of the brain are particularly active and constantly appraise the positive or negative emotions which are generated, and that will, in turn, shape how we react to situations.

“Over time, the negative impact of stressors build up and the physical and emotional wellbeing may be compromised. We asked ourselves - can the impact of stress on the brain of a non-depressed individual be reduced?”

Dr Boy, along with fellow academic Sian Roderick, also from Swansea, have developed new brain science research employing weak electrical impulses to stimulate the frontal cortex by placing  electrodes on the top of the head.

Dr Frederick Boy and Sian Roderick

And if this sounds like a intimidating process, Sian says the technique is actually very simple and the stimulation is very subtle. She said: “We don’t want anyone to think this is like electrical treatments used in the past. The volunteers were all very relaxed with the process and the stimulation lasts for a very short period and feels like a much weaker version of a TENS machine, for example.”

Dr Boy added: “Advances in transcranial electrical stimulation techniques mean we are able to investigate different clinical and non-clinical people and specific areas of the human brain and see how those regions regulate people’s behaviour.

“What was clear is that the way people behave results from a complex interaction between a number of genetic, social and environmental factors.”

The scientists studied 66 healthy young women, with no history of psychiatric disorders or substance dependence. The volunteers filled in questionnaires, which helped assess different aspects of their current mood, the building bricks of the emotional and physical wellbeing. They underwent a course of 12 min-a-day brain electrical stimulations sessions for five days. A total of 22 individuals received an ineffective, but realistic, placebo stimulation, while the 44 others were administered a real, active stimulation.

Dr Boy explains: “This technique employs electrical power that is more than a thousand times lower than the one used by an energy saving light bulb, and result in a feeble tingling lasting a few seconds in the first instants of the stimulation session.”

Over the duration of the research, the team found that those volunteers who received the active stimulation gradually reported having experienced less negative mood states in the past day. On the contrary, participants in the placebo group did not report notable changes in mood.

“This type of treatment has been accredited by the NHS to be used to treat depression last August. We have shown that weak electric stimulation is also effective to improve the mood of  those who are not depressed, but are still affected by the consequence of a stressful, restless and demanding lifestyle,” added Dr Boy, who is Head of Translational and Consumer Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology.

“This technique is based on robust scientific research and we hope it will be developed to create an over-the-counter device which can be used to improve mood and lower stress.”

With the recent statistics showing that more and more young people, are turning to medicating their emotional wellbeing - the number of young people in the UK prescribed anti-depressants increased by more than 50% between 2005 and 2012, according to the new study – could Dr Boy’s research lead to a reduction in this worrying trend?

“Yes, we are hopeful this research can assist in the treatment of low mood without having to resort to medication.

“As well as the possible side effects this type of treatment can have on the patient, prescribing drugs in the first instance is a huge drain on the NHS. We are aiming to align our work with the Prudent Healthcare agenda set out by the Health Minister.

“As a university we are excited to be part of ARCH (A Regional Collaboration for Health).

“The ARCH partners are working to use innovation and research to drive health service improvements and we believe this research could be a part of this transformational approach.

“We hope that in developing a device which people can choose to use we are also empowering the population to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.”

Dr Boy and Sian Roderick are both directors of the emerging life science firm Neurotheraputics, and are hopeful their research can be developed by West Wales medical devices firm Magstim.

The Whitland-based company, who pioneer and manufacture non-invasive magnetic stimulation devices, say they are excited by the research.

Charles Hounsell, Magstim product specialist, said: “Magstim is delighted to explore opportunities with Swansea University to expand our understanding of therapeutic techniques using neurostimulation devices.

“The field of non-invasive brain stimulation is expanding rapidly and we are hugely excited about the potential benefits of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). We look forward to discussing this research further with Dr Boy and his team.”

And Magstim are not the only people who have taken a keen interest in the research. Dr Boy’s paper has been viewed across the globe with several hits on his online paper coming from the Whitehouse.

“The interest into this work has been overwhelming,” said Dr Boy. “We have had views from Silicon Valley, New York and Washington.

“It makes sense though - I am sure life at the Whitehouse gets very stressful,” jokes Dr Boy.

But not to make light of the possible impact this research could have on improving people’s lives, Dr Boy adds: “This is of global significance. This could absolutely change people’s lives.

“We are starting further research on whether this form of brain stimulation could also provide relief in ailments such as low back pain or migraine.”

Professor Ceri Phillips, Head of the College of Human and Health Science and ARCH board member, said Dr Boy’s work was a great example of innovation and research being translated to benefit people in South West Wales.

ARCH logo

He said: “ARCH is Swansea University working with our two health boards of ABMU and Hywel Dda to innovate new ways of working to improve the healthcare we deliver in this region.

“This type of research could create a complementary therapy which may contribute to relieving the pressures on our GPs, reduce the cost of prescribing drugs and help to support the one million people in the ARCH region in taking responsibility for their own health, wellness and wellbeing.

“The new Health and Wellbeing Academy which will open on the Singleton Health Campus in September has the same aims. We want to provide treatments which will improve wellness and also help to alleviate the pressure on our primary care services.

“We look forward to developing Dr Boy’s work.”

Click here to read Dr Boy’s paper. 

Picture caption: Dr Frederic Boy and fellow academic Sian Roderick from Swansea University.