Could depression be treated through deep brain stimulation?

A new treatment for severe depression consisting of implanting electrodes in the brain is being trialled in the United States. — Picture by goa_novi/ via AFP
A new treatment for severe depression consisting of implanting electrodes in the brain is being trialled in the United States. — Picture by goa_novi/ via AFP

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SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 9 ― Could this type of treatment signal an end to a reliance on antidepressants for certain people? In the United States, a woman suffering from severe depression is following a new treatment thanks to an implant installed directly in her brain. After one year, the results are promising and the protocol is set to be tested on 11 other patients.

“Everything has gotten easier and easier,” Sarah is quoted saying in a story in the New Scientist. The young woman suffering from severe depression has seen her daily life transformed since being fitted with electrode leads directly integrated into her brain. This method is referred to as deep brain stimulation (DBS). After a year of a trial period, the results have been published in the journal Nature Medicine.

The team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, recorded the 35-year-old patient's brain activity for 10 days. They then compared the data from ten areas of the brain and charted the data in correlation to Sarah's moods, which she reported. Using this process, the American team defined a pattern of brain activity, also called a “neural biomarker.”

Activated 300 times a day

The therapy proposed by Dr. Edward Chang and his team is based on stimulating one of the brain regions that corresponds with the patient's depression circuit. When the sensor detects a biomarker, the electrode delivers a “small dose of electricity” over a period of 6 seconds. On average, the electrode activates 300 times per day. Once the surgery required to incorporate the implants was completed, the young woman's mood improved.

“The effectiveness of this therapy showed that not only did we identify the correct brain circuit and biomarker, but we were able to replicate it at an entirely different, later phase in the trial using the implanted device. This success in itself is an incredible advancement in our knowledge of the brain function that underlies mental illness,” outlined Katherine Scangos, first author of the study and researcher at UC San Francisco.

An immediate therapeutic approach

The system works as “an on-demand, immediate therapy that is unique to both the patient's brain and the neural circuit causing her illness,” say the researchers in a release.

This achievement is possible because of the joint discovery of the brain activity that causes the symptom of depression as well as “the team's ability to customize a new DBS device to respond only when it recognizes that pattern.”

Following this first trial, Dr. Katherine Scangos hopes to repeat the experiment on 11 more patients. But while the results are impressive, we can't assume that it will work for everyone, cautioned Keyoumars Ashkan of King's College Hospital in London, who spoke to the New Scientist. “It's possible that everyone's brain circuitry involved in mood is slightly different.”

Still in the trial phase, this expensive method would be intended for people suffering from severe depression. A similar approach has already been tested on patients suffering from epilepsy. ― ETX Studio

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