Can Doctors Cure Depression By Electrically Stimulating the Brain?


It's almost like something out of a science fiction novel: Doctors are stimulating patients' brains with electrodes in hopes of alleviating depression. The procedure is called deep brain stimulation, or DBS.

Finding the region of the brain associated with depression

Dr. Helen Mayberg, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, discovered long ago that there is a particular region of the brain associated with depression. It is part of the prefrontal cortex, and it is called Brodmann area 25.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Mayberg scanned the brains of people with depression, treated them, and scanned them again. She hoped to locate the changes in brain activity, which would allow her to pinpoint the region responsible for depression. When a patient responded positively to an antidepressant treatment, the patient's brain always showed a decrease in activity in the region Brodmann area 25.

Dr. Mayberg concluded that this region plays a critical role in regulating negative mood states, and, in cases of treatment-resistant depression, it is metabolically overactive. She began to question whether brain stimulation would reduce elated activity in this region.

Dr. Mayberg has run several experiments since those early years, continually tracking the way a depressed patient's brain reacts to electric stimulation of area 25.

A complicated procedure with a high success rate

Stimulation is not an easy procedure; in fact, it is extensive and complicated. A neurosurgeon must implant small electrodes in a patient's brain, which deliver currents of electricity to the region deep inside the brain. And, as with any brain surgery, it comes with its share of risks.

Despite its inherent dangers, the treatment has been showing a tremendous success rate. In January of 2012, Mayberg published the findings of a trial in which patients with major depression and bipolar disorder were treated with deep brain stimulation. Two years after stimulation began, seven out of the 12 subjects were in remission.

The power to change lives

This is life-changing news for people who have suffered with depression their whole lives. Finally, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Although the procedure doesn’t work for everyone, it produces extraordinary results for those it cures. Patients reported effects including "sudden calmness or lightness," "disappearance of the void," and "sense of increased awareness."

A treatment option for other disorders and diseases as well

Deep brain stimulation has been used to calm the shaking that torments people with Parkinson's disease. And in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration approved DBS as a treatment option for people with extreme OCD.

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