Can a simple brain implant relieve depression?

Researchers at the University of San Francisco in California (UCSF) published a study that shows how a brain implant in a patient with depression, could allow him to get better, or even to heal.

A brain implant to relieve depression when drug treatments don’t work

According to the scientists’ article published in Nature Medicine, this brain implant acts a bit like a neural pacemaker. In their study, the researchers explain that they succeeded in relieve a severe and lasting form of depression in an American patient, using a brain implant. Andrew Krystal, professor of psychiatry at UCSF, explains that: “We have developed a precision medicine approach that has successfully managed our patient’s treatment-resistant depression by identifying and modulating certain parts of her brain associated with the symptoms”.

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The 36-year-old patient, who asked to remain anonymous, said the implant transformed her life after five years of severe depression. No medication, no therapy had been successful in relieving her before. She specifies this: “I felt tortured by suicidal thoughts every day. I was at the end of my rope “. The brain implant inserted into his brain took effect immediately and has been doing so for a full year now. Its operation is rather basic: when it detects neuronal activity associated with negative thoughts, the electrodes deliver a weak electrical impulse and thoughts stop.

Researchers have identified a biomarker that indicates the onset of depressive symptoms

This is a deep brain stimulation (DBS) technique. This method is already in use to treat epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, but had so far not been successful in combating depression. A disease that still affects 280 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Another interesting statistic: 30% of depressed patients say their treatment does not work or that it is malfunctioning. Until now, scientists have little knowledge of the brain circuits associated with depression.

The main advance of UCSF researchers is therefore the discovery of a “biomarker”, in a part of the brain called the tonsil. This biomarker indicates the onset of depressive symptoms. When a signal is detected, the brain implant sends tiny electrical impulses to another area of ​​the brain, the ventral striatum, which is often thought of as the brain’s pleasure system. This immediately makes unwanted mood symptoms go away.

Katherine Scangos, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF specifies that: “We will be working with twelve other patients on this therapy. We have to examine how these circuits vary from patient to patient and repeat this work several times. We need to see if an individual’s biomarker or brain circuit changes over time as treatment continues ”. Alphabet’s Laboratory X has been working on a similar project for several months in order to improve the diagnosis of depression and anxiety by directly analyzing a patient’s brain.

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