Sarah, a 36-year-old woman from California, hadn’t laughed in five years due to severe depression. Recently, that changed.
A proof-of-concept study from the University of California San Francisco, UCSF, has demonstrated how a brain implant could treat a severe depression case by electrically stimulating specific brain regions. As the implant detected depression traces, it responded by zapping critical brain regions in real-time to stop the cycle and improve the patient’s mood.
Mind-blowing, but not literally!
Background: Depression, The silent killer
Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide. It has become so common that it is estimated that 5% percent of adults suffer from it. Many social, psychological, and biological factors contribute to the emergence and severity of this illness, and the symptoms and patterns can vary from feeling sad and tired to having suicidal thoughts.
Depending on the diagnosis, depression can be treated through medication or psychotherapy. But what happens when none of it seems to work? Where can a person turn to when all else fails?
A few previous studies attempted to find associations between brain activity and emotion/emotional behavior, while others focused on understanding if electrical stimulation of different brain regions could improve the symptoms of depression.
“I was at the end of the line,” Sarah explains. “I was severely depressed. I could not see myself continuing if this was all I’d be able to do if I could never move beyond this. It was not a life worth living”.
Sarah suffers from severe, treatment-resistant depression and has tried everything she could to treat it. No antidepressant or therapy seemed to do the trick. She was close to giving up when an invitation to be part of an experimental treatment appeared. By combining all the key findings from previous research, Dr. Katherine Scangos and her team developed an approach that was about to change Sarah’s life forever.
Analysis: A glimmer of hope
The study, published on Nature Medicine, reported the first human patient to be treated with an experimental brain implant in an attempt to counteract the symptoms of depression.
The group tracked Sarah’s brain activity for ten days to identify particular patterns related to depressive symptoms. This led them to focus on a particular area of the amygdala that constantly signaled during the presence of acute depressive symptoms. They then identified the ventral striatum as the best target for treatment. Whenever they zapped it, the stimulation counteracted the amygdala activity, improving the mood response of the patient.
They then programmed the device to continuously recognize the activity in the amygdala and respond with electrical stimulation to the ventral striatum and implanted it in Sarah’s brain.
A few weeks into the treatment with the implant, the patient’s symptoms improved. As months went by, the severity of Sarah’s depression continued to decrease to the point of clinical remission.
“In the early few months, the lessening of the depression was so abrupt, and I wasn’t sure if it would last,” Sarah says. “But it has lasted.”
The instantaneous improvement of severe depression symptoms is so ground-breaking that even the research team members were impressed by the results. “The idea of stimulating somebody and just a few seconds later, them saying, ‘My depression is gone’… it is just stunning”, researcher Dr. Andrew Krystal said in an interview to StatNews.
Outlook: Healing depression one zap at a time
Sarah’s condition has been improving over the 12 months she has had the implant, but the long-term effects of the procedure are still unknown. However, the trial was considered a success, and there are already plans to recruit 12 other participants and extend the study to 2035.
“The idea that we can treat symptoms in the moment, as they arise, is a whole new way of addressing the most difficult-to-treat cases of depression,” says Scangos.
Of course, more evidence is needed to support the efficacy of this treatment. Effective treatments for severe forms of depression are hard to develop because the brain circuits causing them are likely to differ from patient to patient, meaning that each person would probably need a personalized system.
However, this type of custom therapy could be more effective and last longer, with fewer side-effects than the approaches currently used, offering some hope to those who suffer from treatment-resistant depression and feel there’s nowhere else to turn to.
At least for Sarah, this therapy was life-changing: “My depression has been kept at bay, and that’s allowed me to start rebuilding a life that’s worth living.”
Raquel is a forensic geneticist turned freelance writer. She has a knack for technology and a passion for science. You can follow her at scitechcorner.com and on Twitter @theRaquelSantos.