August 14, 2022

A Surgically Implanted Brain Stimulation Device Could Help Treat Severe Depression

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An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Sarah was the patient in a proof-of-concept trial of a new approach to treating severe, treatment-resistant depression, published today in the journal Nature Medicine. The findings open up another possible strategy for helping people with the disorder. The study only involved Sarah, and it’s still not clear how well it might work in other people. The lessons from the trial, though, helped the researchers understand more about the nature of depression and could apply to other efforts to treat the disease. The trial used a technique called deep brain stimulation, where electrodes implanted within the brain deliver electrical impulses in an attempt to change or regulate abnormal brain activity. It’s common for conditions like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. Research over the past decade has shown that it can sometimes help with depression, but the findings have been inconsistent. Most previous efforts delivered stimulation to individual regions of the brain thought to be involved in depression. This study, though, was targeted at regions that were part of specific brain circuits — interconnected parts of the brain that are responsible for specific functions.

In addition, the circuits involved might be different for each person. So in this trial, the study team personalized the treatment approach to the specific patient’s depression. They mapped out the type of brain activity that occurred when Sarah’s depression symptoms flared. Then, they surgically implanted a device that could detect that brain activity and send stimulation to the circuit where the activity was happening. For Sarah, the procedure was highly effective. Her scores on depression rating scales dropped the morning after the device was turned on. And perhaps more importantly, she felt dramatic changes in her mood. During her first time getting the stimulation, she laughed out loud in the lab. “And everyone in the room went, ‘Oh my god,’ because that’s the first time I spontaneously laughed and smiled, where it wasn’t faked, in five years,” she said. Sarah’s depression circuit flares up hundreds of times a day, and each time, the implanted device delivers a brief stimulating pulse. In total, she gets around 30 minutes of stimulation each day […]. Sarah can’t feel the pulses, but she said she does have a general idea of when they’re happening throughout the day. “There’s a sense of alertness and energy or positivity that I’ll feel,” she said.

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