Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

Brain implant relieves patient’s severe depression in ‘landmark’ US study

This is a major breakthrough in dealing with mood disorders and mental illness…

Device sends a corrective electric pulse when it detects neural activity associated with irrational thoughts

The key discovery was a “biomarker” indicating the onset of depressive symptoms, a specific pattern of neural activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala that deals with responses to threats.

US researchers have successfully relieved a patient’s severe, long-term depression with an electronic implant that acts like a neural pacemaker, resetting the brain circuits associated with negative feelings. The team at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) said the study was “a landmark success” in the scientific effort to treat psychiatric disorders through carefully targeted neural electronics. The study is published in the Nature Medicine journal.

It’s only a single patient, but the team at the University of California San Francisco says it has seen remarkable results with the device, which is calibrated to detect the signals associated with depressive symptoms in the patient’s brain, and interfere with them.

“We’ve developed a precision medicine approach that has successfully managed our patient’s treatment-resistant depression by identifying and modulating the circuit in her brain that’s uniquely associated with her symptoms,” said Andrew Krystal, UCSF professor of psychiatry.

At a press teleconference ahead of the study’s publication, the 36-year-old patient, who asked just to be called Sarah, said the implant had transformed her life after five years of intense depression that would not respond to any drug combination or electroconvulsive therapy. “I felt tortured by suicidal thoughts every day,” she said. “I was at the end of the line.”

Deep brain stimulation

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has recently become a routine treatment for epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease but has had limited success against depression, which affects 280m people globally according to the World Health Organization. As many as 30 per cent of depressed patients do not respond well to existing treatments.

Further research required but hope is on the horizon

The study team worked intensely with Sarah to first map the areas of her brain that became active when she was experiencing the worst symptoms of depression. They implanted two small wires into her brain to detect the associated brain activity and then deliver a pulse of electricity that interrupts the signal.
It’s a highly personalized treatment and one that will require years more of research to develop into anything that will be useful to the wider public, the team reported in the journal Nature Medicine.
But it provides some small hope for people with the most severe and intractable forms of depression, who are not helped by cognitive therapy, drugs or even electroconvulsive shock therapy

“Nobody says to somebody with Parkinson’s ‘if you just have a positive attitude and bear up, you’ll cure yourself.’

No one says this to someone with cancer,’ ” she added. But people do not treat depression as a disease, she said.
“The feedback we get from society is it is a moral failing. It must be something that you are doing wrong,” she said. “Even if it is well meaning.”

Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash

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