A clinical trial, RAINDROP, in the UK, is set to assess non-invasive brain stimulation along with brain imaging technologies to help patients in minimally conscious and vegetative states.

The University of Birmingham, in partnership with The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, will conduct the study.

RAINDROP comes from findings from the university’s Centre for Human Brain Health, where non-invasive brain stimulation was observed to improve rehabilitation in non-responsive patients.

The trial will leverage brain imaging techniques to monitor the effects of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) in five patients.

RAINDROP will gain insights into the use of stimulation to boost communication and recovery, as well as potential improvements in rehabilitation rates in non-responsive patients suffering from sustained consciousness disorder.

tDCS detects and treats damaged connections in the brain. Electrodes will be placed on the patient’s head to deliver low levels of direct current at select brain areas.

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The top brain region associated with motor control, as well as thalamus, which relays motor signals and controls consciousness, will receive the current.

Multimodal brain imaging will be used to track the effect of stimulation on brain function.

Researchers will assess changes in blood flow using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure activity in different brain areas. Furthermore, electrophysiology will be used to measure the electrical activity produced when neurons fire in the brain.

Centre for Human Brain Health researcher Dr Davinia Fernández-Espejo said: “The different areas of our brain need to have good connections between them in order to carry out different functions. By finding the right ways to stimulate this network, we’re able to improve these connections, helping the brain to compensate for the damaged pathways and improve the patient’s ability to respond.

“We’ve already been able to show that these techniques have potential among healthy subjects. This important next step will enable us to test their effect among patients.”

Data from the RAINDROP trial is expected to support a study with patients at several centres in the UK.