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Brain Implant Gives Woman Relief From Lifelong Depression

Doctors used a device approved for epilepsy
By Liz MacGahan,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 4, 2021 2:42 PM CDT
Brain Implant Gives Woman Relief From Lifelong Depression
Stock image of an MRI of a brain.   (Nur Ceren Demir/Getty Images)

(Newser) – A woman with depression that never got better, not with antidepressants and not with electroconvulsive therapy, is finally getting some relief, and some researchers are as happy as she is. A woman, identified only as Sarah, had struggled for most of her 36 years, but now finds herself capable of joy. The solution was a matchbox-sized implant in her brain sending electrical impulses where she needs them and when. Deep brain stimulation has helped control Parkinson’s and epilepsy, and the device doctors made for Sarah is an adaptation of a device for epilepsy. But until now, it hadn’t helped depression—though some epilepsy patients had noted that their mood improved while using their devices, CNN reports. And doctors had tried deep brain stimulation to give relief to people living with depression before, too, without consistent results.

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Speaking at a press briefing about the case, and in an article published Monday in the journal Nature, researcher and psychiatrist Dr. Katherine Scagnos talked about tailoring the stimulation to Sarah by figuring out which areas of her brain were active when she was feeling depressed, and which areas made her feel better. "We found one location, which is an area called the ventral striatum, where stimulation consistently eliminated her feelings of depression,” she said, per the BBC. Scagnos said they found activity in Sarah’s amygdala could predict depressed feelings, too.

Sarah was suicidal—she had moved in with her parents for her own safety—when she heard about the experimental treatment at the University of California San Francisco. In the past, deep brain stimulation to treat depression had not been tailored to a person's brain. Scagnos and her colleagues sought to find bring relief to people nothing else helped by trying to find areas of the brain that would benefit from stimulation. "When the implant was first turned on, my life took an immediate upward turn. My life was pleasant again," Sarah said. Sarah is just one patient, though, and researchers now need to learn whether her treatment will work for more patients. Jonathan Roiser, a neuroscience expert and professor at University College London not affiliated with the research, said, "as there was only one patient and no control condition, it remains to be seen whether these promising results hold in clinical trials." (Read more depression stories.)

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