Scientific First: Brain Implant Successfully Treats Severe Depression

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In a scientific first, researchers have successfully treated severe depression using personalized brain stimulation via an implant, as device may provide relief when nothing else can, a new case study published Monday suggests.

Personalized brain stimulation may provide relief for “incurable” depression

What does someone do when none of the current methods of treatment will alleviate their severe depression? This is precisely the problem many people with “incurable” depression face. But a new medical miracle may provide hope.

Researchers unveiled a study this week, that was published on Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, which showed how an implantable brain device successfully brought relief for one woman and may provide a pathway for relief for people who have been suffering from difficult to treat depression, where nothing else has been effective.

Deep brain stimulation

Researchers claim, for the first time, to have applied a custom-fitted deep brain stimulation (DBS) device via an implant that was able to provide substantial alleviation to a patient who had been suffering severe depression for decades, Gizmodo reported.

While this is the first time DBS has been used for depression, it has already successfully helped manage certain types of seizures, as well as Parkinson’s disease.

How DBS works

The central concept in applying DBS to neurological conditions is to balance erratic patterns of brain activity that are associated with the targeted condition. It is not unlike the common use of electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) in physical therapy treatments to interrupt pain signals along the nerves as a way of providing pain relief.

Additionally, DBS is similar to the application of a pacemaker in regulating the heart, in the sense that DBS uses the brain implant to send electrical signals to regulate brain activity responsible for the condition being treated.

How the brain implant identifies and treats depression

In the study, a 36-year-old woman had the implant device fitted over a year ago. The device is roughly the size of a matchbook. The device resides in the skull and is wired to the brain. It remains in a constant state of readiness, delivering an impulse when it detects that the patient may need it, the BBC reported.

The researchers said the innovation has been made possible after the “depression circuits” in the patient’s brain were identified.

“We found one location, which is an area called the ventral striatum, where stimulation consistently eliminated her feelings of depression,” said Dr. Katherine Scangos, a psychiatrist from the University of California, San Francisco. “And we also found a brain activity area in the amygdala that could predict when her symptoms were most severe.”

How soon will these devices be available for treatment?

For now, the researchers stress this is only a single case and it should be viewed as a proof of concept. Researchers say much more study will be needed to prove this type of treatment can be successfully replicated in others.

While the DBS implant device is commercially available, the overall treatment, researchers estimate, would likely cost around $30,000.

Researchers say simplification will be needed to bring down costs and make this a viable long-term future treatment.