Depression is a serious mental illness that affects millions of people. According to him report From the World Health Organization (WHO) 2017, nearly 322 million people worldwide are living with depression. Which is roughly 4.4 percent of the world’s population.
In recent years, mainly due to the pandemic and the problems that have afflicted different countries, it is more likely that the number has increased rather than decreased. That is why the area of science has been in charge of finding ways to combat this disease, and the advances are impressive.
Recently, a group of researchers from the Weill Institute of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have developed an experimental brain implant, which can treat severe depression by electrically stimulating certain regions of the brain. In that way, it is able to eliminate depression in real time.
What this innovative experimental implant does is monitor neuronal activity in search of biomarkers that indicate the onset of depression. After that, it briefly attacks a key region of the brain in real time to interrupt the cycle and respond with stimulation. This can improve the person’s mood symptoms.
“A historic success”
The team of researchers behind this study referred to it as “a historic success” in applying advances in neuroscience to the treatment of psychiatric disorders.
“This study points the way to a new paradigm that is desperately needed in psychiatry. We have developed a precision medicine approach that has successfully managed our patient’s treatment-resistant depression by identifying and modulating the circuitry in her brain that is uniquely associated with her symptoms, said Andrew Krystal, co-lead author of the new study. published in the newspaper Nature Medicine.
Previously, some researchers had worked to find associations between certain moods and patterns of electrical activity in the brain. And on the other hand, certain studies focused on specific brain regions that improved depression symptoms when stimulated with electric shocks.
This served as a background for the UCSF scientists. “This new study brings together almost all of the critical findings from our previous research on a comprehensive treatment aimed at alleviating depression,” said co-lead author Edward Chang.
The patient who tried the implant
The first patient to be treated with the experimental brain implant is a 36-year-old woman named Sarah. She has suffered from treatment-resistant severe depression since childhood, and throughout her life she tried all therapies to treat her condition, from multiple antidepressants to electroconvulsive therapy. When it did not work, Sarah was supported for a year with the deep brain stimulation device (DBS).
The first step in the research was to closely follow the electrical activity in Sarah’s brain, which was monitored for 10 days to identify specific patterns that correlate with depressive symptoms. The researchers focused on a particular area of the amygdala that was constantly showing up with activity, indicating the onset of acute depressive symptoms.
The researchers then discovered that brief bursts of electrical stimulation in the stratum ventral body could counteract this activity of the amygdala. Once that personalized brain activity pattern and stimulation target had been identified, the researchers implanted an experimental device that could detect activity in one region and respond with electrical stimulation in another.
After almost two weeks with the custom implant, Sarah began to improve on her depression. Before the implant, she scored 36 out of 45 on the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) and just 12 days after the implant activated, her score dropped to 14.
In the next few months the score was decreasing more and more and finally it was only 10 points. This score means clinical remission, that is, the patient’s symptoms have lessened. “Before I had the device, the emotions and the darkness were overwhelming. Now I just get up and go about my day. For me, the device has been a blast, ”Sarah said.
The future of this innovative brain implant
This new personalized therapy could be more effective, long-lasting and capable of generating fewer side effects than any current treatment, so it is a hopeful sign for people with severe, treatment-resistant depression.
However, much remains to be done before this type of therapy even comes close to real-world clinical use. While Sarah showed steady improvement over the 12 months she has had the implant, the long-term effects are still unknown.
According to Katherine Scangos, first author of the new study, they should “observe how these circuits vary between patients” and if the “brain circuit of an individual changes over time” as treatment progresses.
However, because Sarah’s treatment has proven so successful, the researchers have recruited two more participants for these ongoing trials. And looking to the future, the researchers’ plans is to summon 12 participants in total, with a test that is scheduled to run until 2035.