Electrical Stimulation Applied to the Brain May Help Treat and Cure Depression

Learn how electrical stimulation applied to the brain may help treat and cure depression. More about depression and electrical stimulation here.


London, UK -- (SBWIRE) -- 10/31/2013 -- Research involving deep brain stimulation reveals that treatment-resistant depression might be curable by applying small electric shocks to specific areas in the brain.

Depression is one of the most common, yet least spoken about, psychiatric conditions in today’s society, and treating it is something that does not always succeed, mostly because it is not entirely understood. So, to start off, what is depression?

An often-made confusion is that depression is simply a low mood or a temporary feeling of sadness, people assuming that someone that suffers from depression can simply “shake it off” or “cheer up.” Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than that to treat depression and most people are never fully “healed,” but are forced to learn to manage it through a combination of therapy and medication.

While it is true that depression is most often characterized by a low mood, there are many more factors and symptoms present for a person suffering from this condition. The most common way of describing the way someone feels when they are depressed is an inability to experience joy or pleasure. There are various reasons for which this can happen, whether psychological, biological, or related to substance abuse, and the exact mechanism of onset is not entirely understood even at this point.

The conventional treatment for depression, and the most successful thus far, is through the use of a type of medication known as anti-depressants. By using this type of medication, the body is either supplied with some chemicals that are known to be lacking in depression patients or prevented from absorbing said substances, such as serotonin or dopamine. In the case that a person does not respond to two or more types of medication, their type of depression is referred to as “treatment-resistant” and other ways of treatment might be required, usually therapy or alternative medicine (homeopathy, acupuncture, hypnosis, etc.).

It is for this type of depression that some researchers are focusing on, as this condition, left untreated, can lead to large discomfort in a person’s life and can even push people to isolating themselves or harming themselves. This is why they began exploring deep brain stimulation (DBS) as a potential means of treatment for this condition.

Deep brain stimulation is by no means a recent development in the medical field, being approved by the FDA in treating tremors in 1997. Despite the fact that is has been around for over a decade, the exact reason for which it works in treating various conditions is not entirely understood.

This line of treatment consists of implanting a small device called a “brain pacemaker” in the brain. What this device does is stimulate certain regions of the brain, modifying brain activity. A possible explanation as to why this device works is that it stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate, a coenzyme with a crucial role in energy transfer between molecules. Although researchers are not sure how this translates into treating the various conditions that the procedure is used for, it has been successfully used on patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, and, more recently, depression.

The way in which researchers applied this treatment to depression patients is by studying its effect on the people that suffer from Parkinson’s disease and creating an analogy to the brain activity of depressed people. They located the area that is responsible for stimulating and inhibiting feelings of sadness and sorrow, and placed the device in the area that can inhibit these feelings, effectively “slowing down” unhappy thoughts and the lingering feeling of melancholy associated with this condition.

There is some concern related to this procedure, as there should be considering it involves implanting a device that sends electrical signals running through your brain. The major issue it can pose is that the device could malfunction, sending impulses that are too strong or that extend to other regions of the brain, which could, in turn, lead to panic attacks, anxiety, mania, or permanent brain damage. Until now there have not been any reported cases of such a thing occurring, but scientists still feel they should perform more tests until this can be introduced as a widespread form of treatment.

An advantage of DBS as opposed to most medication used nowadays is that it is reversible and can be stopped at any point, either by deactivating the pacemaker or by removing it completely, whereas interrupting anti-depressant medication abruptly will, in most cases, lead to withdrawal symptoms that could leave the person worse off than when they started.

So far, there have only been a few hundred people that suffer from depression and have undergone the surgery to receive this implant, with nearly two thirds experiencing great results within the first few days after recovery. Because of the risks involved with this procedure, it is only recommended for people suffering from treatment-resistant depression. However, should it prove as safe as it is currently estimated, there is a possibility of DBS replacing some of today’s conventional ways of treatment.

Whether this method of treatment will be implemented or not does not change one crucial element of DBS: it changes and deepens our understanding of the human brain. Researchers are optimistic and estimate that more and more conditions related to brain activity might be treated through this method in the future, including idiopathic epilepsy, various forms of dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and might even help people wake up from comas faster and with more ease.

Researchers estimate that, at the rate at which tests are being conducted and keeping track of the great success rate that this line of treatment has had so far, DBS might be introduced as a reliable way of helping people with treatment-resistant depression by the end of next year, which is great news for people that suffer from this condition, bringing them hope that they can lead the happy life that they desire along with their loved ones.

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