For most ataxias there is no treatment available, but recent studies have reported that applying a low electrical current to the scalp may alleviate symptoms. This technique is known as cerebellar transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS). TDCS is a portable, painless, non-invasive and easy-to-perform technique which induces activity in the brain. Repetitive stimulations, for example on a daily basis for two weeks, can induce longlasting effects.

Researchers in Italy have recently conducted a small pilot study in patients with neurodegenerative ataxia to evaluate the potential benefit of tDCS in reducing symptoms, with very promising results. They delivered tDCS to the cerebellum and the spinal cord for two weeks in a double-blind study (i.e. some patients received real tDCS, while others received placebo tDCS with the device switched off). The people that received real tDCS showed a significant improvement in cerebellar symptoms and quality of life compared to those who received placebo tDCS. After two weeks of tDCS treatment, this improvement could be detected for up to three months.

This is the first time this technique has been tested in the ataxias and it is now gaining interest from other research groups around the world. The research team will soon begin a second study in Italy to confirm and extend these preliminary findings, which will be funded by Ataxia UK. This time, they will include a larger number of patients and will repeat the treatment after a three-month break to establish if the effects of the treatment last on a longerterm basis.

People with Friedreich’s ataxia (FA), spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA), or multiple system atrophy (MSA) will undergo two weeks of treatment with cerebellar/ spinal cord tDCS (real treatment) versus placebo treatment. The effects of tDCS will be assessed for three months. After three months, all subjects will undergo an additional two weeks of treatment with real tDCS, and effects will be further assessed for another three months.

The project lead Barbara Borroni (right), from the University of Brescia, tells us: “This project might open a new avenue of therapeutic care for those with neurodegenerative ataxia, and show whether multiple tDCS sessions are able to delay progression of ataxia.”