Story at a glance
- Depression and its symptoms are a result of complex brain activity.
- A group of researchers studied one woman’s brain for 10 days to figure out which parts were active during depressive symptoms and when symptoms were improving.
- A device implanted in her brain signaled to the part that was active when her symptoms improved, and it helps keep her depression at bay.
Neuroscientists have used electric pulses to stimulate specific areas of the brain to try to treat several conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. In a major breakthrough, a group of researchers have treated depression symptoms in a patient using an implant targeting a specific part of the brain.
The first person to be treated with this new approach is a patient named Sarah (who has given only her first name for privacy reasons), a 38-year-old woman who has tried about 20 medications, as well as other treatments, including electroconvulsive therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation, to treat her depression, according to The New York Times.
Researchers observed her brain activity over 10 days to try to understand what signals were happening when she felt depressive symptoms and which signals improved the symptoms.
They implanted a device normally used for epilepsy. Whenever activity is detected in the areas of the brain that are associated with depression symptoms, the device is programmed to send electricity bursts — which are not felt by the patient — lasting six seconds to the area in the ventral striatum that was active when her symptoms improved.
The results, published in the journal Nature Medicine, show that Sarah’s device goes off up to 300 times a day, although it remains inactive at night so as to not disrupt her sleep. Sarah’s score on the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale improved. Before the treatment, she scored 36 out of 54 with higher numbers indicating greater severity of symptoms. Two weeks after the device was implanted her score dropped to 14 and then dropped further to be under 10 several months later.
Sarah’s rapid progress is a promising sign for the use of this type of treatment for severe cases of depression.
“I had a real ‘aha!’ moment. I felt an intensely joyous sensation, and depression became a distant nightmare,” Sarah said at a press conference, according to MIT Technology Review. “Crucially, it also made me realize that depression is not a personal failing but a treatable illness.”
“The big question is whether you can adapt and scale this approach. For that, you need more data from more patients,” said Helen S. Mayberg, a neurologist who studies the potential for deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat depression, to MIT Technology Review. The group does plan to try this method in two more people who have signed up while actively recruiting nine more individuals.
The most difficult aspect of trying this in more patients is that each person’s brain will map differently. This type of treatment will inherently need to be personalized to them.
“One person’s depression might look very different from another person’s depression,” said Katherine Scangos, an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco and one of the study’s authors, to the Times.
In the future, researchers could potentially figure out a way to stimulate the areas of the brain from outside rather than an implant that requires a full day of surgery to put in place. But for now, it at least seems promising for the few individuals with severe depressive symptoms for whom other treatments did not work.
Sarah said to the Times, “The device has kept my depression at bay, allowing me to return to my best self and rebuild a life worth living.”
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