Studying a new way to treat depression

UC, Lindner Center of HOPE researcher receives patent to study treatment for psychiatric disorders

Francisco Romo-Nava is interested in the mind-body connection — that communication between the brain and the body and its role in certain illnesses.

His interest has led him to study whether altering that communication might lead to better treatment options for patients with psychiatric disorders.

“After I received my MD and started practicing as a psychiatrist, I became increasingly interested in the mechanisms involved in brain-body communication and the tie between mental and physical health,” he says, adding that his interest drove him to seek a doctorate in neuroscience.

He calls his research “neuroscience of the body in psychiatric disorders,” and it led the University of Cincinnati researcher to start a study, being conducted at the Lindner Center of HOPE, to examine if electrical stimulation of the spinal cord could be helpful in treating certain psychiatric conditions, like depression.

This is an example of innovation as part of UC President Neville Pinto's strategic direction, Next Lives Here.

portrait of Francisco Romo-Nava

Francisco Romo-Nava, MD, PhD, a University of Cincinnati researcher, is conducting a study at the Lindner Center of HOPE to examine if electrical stimulation of the spinal cord could be helpful in treating certain psychiatric conditions, like depression. Photo credit/Colleen Kelley

photo of patent and device

Francisco Romo-Nava, MD, PhD, received a United States patent to continue his research on a study examining a method to stimulate the brain-body communication pathways in the spinal cord by using investigational devices “no larger than a shoe box with cables and rubber electrodes.” Photo credit/Colleen Kelley

His work on this study has recently earned him a United States patent and could eventually lead to easier treatment options with fewer side effects for certain patients.

Romo-Nava, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at UC, associate chief research officer for the Research Institute at the Lindner Center of HOPE and a UC Health physician scientist, says this patent supports the study of a method to stimulate the brain-body communication pathways in the spinal cord by using investigational devices “no larger than a shoe box with cables and rubber electrodes.”

The brain and spinal cord are components of the central nervous system, he explains, and there are neural pathways, or tracts, that connect both. These pathways are made up of nervous tissue, including neurons and other cells, and can send information from the body to the brain or from the brain to the body.

“We think that a relatively small electrical current applied through the skin, which can barely be felt by the patient and will not hurt them, will moderate the brain-body communication neural pathways in the spinal cord and will impact certain regions of the brain,” Romo-Nava says, adding they are in the beginning stages of studying this method and are trying to determine how often and long the stimulation sessions should occur.

photo of electrode placement on participant

In the study, a patient will have small electrodes placed on their back and their shoulder to stimulate communication pathways in the spinal cord. The patient will barely be able to feel it, Romo-Nava says. Photo provided.

“We are starting with a duration of 20 minutes each, three times per week for eight weeks,” he says. “We are currently at 65% of the enrollment goal of 20 subjects. After we complete this study, we plan to evaluate the results to guide our next steps.”

Romo-Nava says he thinks of the interaction between the brain and the body as a self-regulating feedback circuit that is often disturbed in psychiatric disorders.

“If we can fix that disturbance, we may be able to improve both the mental and physical health of patients,” he says, adding that the initial pilot study was funded by a Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Young Investigator Grant. The foundation awards grants of the National Alliance for Research in Schizophrenia and Depression.

He says his team is beginning to study other aspects of brain-body communication through a National Institute of Mental Health Career Development Award and is working on the development of the Neuroscience of the Body Research Program within the Lindner Center of HOPE Research Institute to continue investigating this field.

These could be the initial steps in potentially developing a better treatment for certain patients with depression.

Francisco Romo-Nava, MD, PhD

This patent, which was supported by UC’s Office of Innovation, will help researchers seek additional grants to test this method with other psychiatric conditions and possibly collaborate with private companies.

“It is still early, and we need to conduct much more research before we are able to confirm that this method works,” Romo-Nava says. “One of our ultimate goals is to test this out in larger clinical trials to determine the role of brain-body communication in the study of mental disorders, as well as to explore its potential as a useful therapy.

“These are the first steps in examining this method and could be the initial steps in potentially developing a better treatment for certain patients with depression, avoiding side effects from medications and improving their overall quality of life.”

Featured photo of Francisco Romo-Nava, MD, PhD, with electrodes and device used in the study by Colleen Kelley.

Looking for participants

The study is currently recruiting participants between the ages of 18 and 55 who have been experiencing symptoms of moderate depression for at least one month and are not on medication for the treatment of depression. Participants would be required to complete a phone screening, attend an in-person screening visit that includes labs and other tests, attend a baseline visit and attend 20-minute stimulation sessions three times per week for eight weeks. Eligible participants will be compensated up to $250 for their time and travel. A prescreening questionnaire, as well as more information on this study conducted at the Lindner Center of HOPE Research Institute, can be found at LCOH.info or call 513-536-0707.

UC's Office of Innovation

For anyone who has an idea with potential commercial impact or who is interested in learning more about UC’s Office of Innovation, visit innovation.uc.edu.