Jeanette McLaughlin-Barker’s baby daughter had finally settled down for a nap, so the exhausted new mother decided to have a bath. “My hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably,” she says. “So much so that the water was slopping out of the bath. I thought I was having a fit. Somehow I managed to get myself together and call my GP. He told me that it was ‘just’ a panic attack.”
Back in 1994, McLaughlin-Barker, who was 32 with a four-month-old, was being treated for post-natal depression – but the issue did not resolve when her baby Ellie started sleeping through the night. In fact, it was the start of a psychiatric safari through antidepressants, therapy and even a threat of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. “At one point, I was on ten tablets a day,” she says.
Nor was it a new problem. McLaughlin-Barker had suffered anxiety for most of her life. At the age of eight, she remembers waking up at 10pm night after night and going downstairs to sit with her parents. Always a nervous child, she took a month off school after the headmistress noticed she had become “withdrawn and quiet”.
But in September this year – having suffered a panic attack so severe, her family called for paramedics – McLaughlin-Barker found something that, she says, “changed my life overnight”: a £499 electronic gadget called the Alpha-Stim.
The Alpha-Stim is a hand-held “cranial electrotherapy stimulation” device. Similar in size to an MP3 player, it works, according to the manufacturer, “by passing an imperceptible, healing micro-current across the brain in an extremely gentle way, allowing the brain to balance itself safely and naturally”. You wear small clips on your earlobes, and use it for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, usually before bed.
Launched in the States in 1981, the device is now being considered by the NHS as a potential treatment for generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), as well as depression, insomnia and pain. On the back of a 2019 Nottingham University study by Professor Richard Morriss, it is currently being used on the NHS in Nottingham, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, while the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice) looks into making the Alpha-Stim available in primary care, as well as in hospitals and in the community. An even larger clinical trial is due to start later this year.
Dr David Smart – a Midlands-based GP with an interest in holistic solutions to mental health, including exercise, meditation and socialising – says: “Anything that has an effect on anxiety, and is cost-effective, has to be a good thing. As I understand it, the device stimulates the brain to produce alpha waves, which induces mental relaxation. When people are stressed, their blood pressure, and breathing rates go up, which creates more problems.”
The main positive of the Alpha-Stim, says Dr Smart, is that it increases patient choice. “Some people don’t want to take tablets,” he says. “Others don’t fancy talking therapies.”
Jeanette McLaughlin-Barker, now 57, had reached the end of the line with both options when she read an article her mother cut out from a newspaper. “A woman claimed that of all the things she had tried to cure her anxiety, this was the only thing that worked,” she says. “I consider myself a sceptical, conventional person. But all I could think was: ‘how do I get one?”’ McLaughlin-Barker Googled the manufacturers, and mentioned that she wanted some expert help in starting the treatment. In September, she was referred to Dr Lesley Parkinson, a Harley Street clinical psychologist, who specialises in neurofeedback.
“Lesley performed an EEG, and saw that I had abnormal brain waves. She asked whether I had sustained any traumatic injuries in childhood.” The patient revealed that, two weeks before she was due to be born, her mother had suffered a car incident, and she had to be induced as a result. “Dr Parkinson felt the damage was caused by the trauma I had endured in the womb, and that the brain injury had worsened as I got older.”
McLaughlin-Barker had two treatments with a neurofeedback device called a Brainmaster (brainmaster.com) – which has been described as a “more powerful version of the Alpha-Stim” – before investing in her own model to use at home. “I felt better immediately,” she says. “That first night, I slept through. These days, my head is clear and I have not had one panic attack since starting the treatment. In the last couple of months, I have weaned off the betablockers and anti-anxiety medications, and plan to get off my antidepressants next year.”
Not everyone is so evangelical about such devices. Cynthia Fu, an honorary consultant psychiatrist at the Affective Disorders Service at the Maudsley Hospital in London, has been involved in research looking at transcranial direct stimulation in the treatment of depression. “The problem with Alpha-Stim is that no one is clear about its mechanism,” she says. “There are reports that it’s helpful for small groups of people. But the recent Nottingham University study only had 161 takers; 80 per cent of those invited did not want to try it.”
A further issue, says Professor Fu, is the absence thus far of randomised controlled trials – where there is also a ‘sham’ placebo against which to measure the device’s effects. She is also wary of the marketing of the device as an alternative to ‘talking therapies’, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and medication. “I am in favour of evidence-based treatments,” she says.
Meanwhile, the fact that patients such as Jeanette McLaughlin-Barker benefit so dramatically from the Alpha-Stim, means surely that it begs to be further examined, especially in the light of new concerns around side-effects and withdrawals from psychotropic medications. According to Dr Smart: “The main thing is that patients feel positive about their doctor’s advice. Mental health treatments are not likely to be effective if patients don’t engage with them.”
For Professor Fu, there is another takeaway: “The level of interest in any new treatment shows how distressing it is for people suffering from anxiety disorders,” she says. “As doctors, we must do everything we can to alleviate this.”