TV host medical trial: teasing the tongue can restore balance
Published Monday, May 23, 2016 5:40PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, May 24, 2016 9:45AM EDT
A new experimental therapy is trying to determine if stimulating the tongue can retrain the brain and offer some relief to those with neurological issues.
Thousands of people live with permanent neurological symptoms from head injuries or disease, including problems with walking and balance.
Award-winning American former talk show host Montel Williams is one of those people.
Now a health advocate and media personality, Williams is mostly focused on staying healthy after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000.
“When I got diagnosed with MS, the first shocker was am I going to go the wayside of Hollywood throwaways? And that was a big fear,” he said.
MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease, which causes physical and cognitive problems.
“The two big categories are the relapsing/remitting and then you have the steadily progressive – and one can evolve into the other,” said Gabriel Leonard, a neuropsychologist at McGill University.
In 2007, as Williams's MS began to progress, he searched for new treatments.
“I found out about this program that's going on at the University of Wisconsin with a medical device,” he said.
A tongue stimulator is used during physiotherapy by people who have gait and balance problems.
“And the third session in, my life was profoundly changed,” he said. “It - gave me my life back, my balance, my flexibility, my leg tremors (were gone).”
Williams decided to create a company, called Helius Medical Technologies, which works on non-invasive technologies to expand treatment options for brain-injury patients.
Since the therapy also has potential for concussion patients, the former navy man was able to secure a $7-million investment from the U.S. military.
The next step is clinical trials. The company looked to the Montreal Neurological Institute.
“You have probably one of the best brain centres in the world – right here. And that's the reason why we're here,” explained Williams.
Leonard and McGill University neuropsychologist Alain Ptito were chosen to conduct an independent pilot study, looking at 14 MS patients from Montreal in a double blind, controlled study.
Over 14 weeks, the subjects used the Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator (PoNS) device while engaging in 20 minutes of intense guided physiotherapy daily.
“The tongue has direct connections through the fifth and seventh cranial nerves to the brain stem. And the brain stem has a diffuse effect over the whole brain. The connections are huge from the brain stem to the rest of the brain. So the simple rationale is to think that if you stimulate the tongue you're going to end up stimulating the whole brain,” explained Ptito.
“Can we, for instance, help somebody that has MS and shows difficulty with gait and balance and cognitive problems if we combine the stimulation of the tongue to them doing intensive physiotherapy?” he posited.
The device is easy to use. The patient simply places a mouthpiece with 143 electrodes on the end of their tongue, while performing the physio exercise routine.
“It’s no worse than champagne bubbles on your tongue,” said Williams.
The electrical stimulation of the tongue stimulates two major cranial nerves, which creates a flow of neural impulses. They are then delivered directly into the brain stem — the main control centre for many functions, including sensory perception and movement.
Ptito says the results of the study are encouraging.
“So first of all, there were improvements of motor functions in all of the subjects… but we saw changes of the brain of the active group that we didn't see in the sham group,” he said.
As for the cognitive benefits, Ptito adds, “the working memory seems to have been the one that improved or initiated changes the most.”
“We're trying to help the patients directly - but we want to be cautious because we don't want to give hope… but we're saying there is perhaps a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
The Neuro researchers are now recruiting patients for a study on people with concussions and balance problems.
“We're looking for a population of subjects that have had a traumatic brain injury, mild to moderate, that have gone through physio and that have plateaued,” said Ptito.
“The reason we have to do this is we have to prove what happens in me, we have to do it the right way, through clinical trials. That is the only way science accepts things. I am nothing to anyone else in the world than a glorified anecdote of one,” said Williams.
With new promising data, scientists are now eager to prove him right.
The Montreal Neurological Institute is seeking people who have a brain injury to undergo non-invasive clinical trials.
Anyone with a brain injury due to a sports injury, auto accident, military service, trip, slip or fall may qualify.
They must be between 18 and 65 and experienced a mild to moderate brain injury more than one year ago.
They should have trouble with balance and did not lose consciousness for more than 24 hours at the time of the injury.
Learn more about the trial by clicking here or by calling 1-877-845-5728.