- Doctors implanted a “pacemaker for the brain” in a woman with treatment-resistant depression.
- The implant responds to brain patterns associated with depression with electric pulses.
- The patient’s symptoms began to improve after 12 days with the implant and gradually disappeared.
Researchers are working on a personalized depression treatment that could offer hope to people with persistent mental health problems.
They tried out the experimental therapy, nicknamed “a
for the brain,” in a 38-year-old California woman whose depression was making it impossible for her to work and live on her own.
The matchbook-sized device is calibrated to sense brain waves associated with the patient’s depression and respond with light electric pulses, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times.
Although she cannot feel the pulses, Sarah — who asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy — told the Times she believes she knows when they occur because she’s able to better manage negative thoughts.
“You’re experiencing that whole negative, depressive, whatever the triggering thing is, and then it’s like suddenly the ultra-rational side of you comes on and those emotions can be separated,” she told reporter Pam Belluck.
Once consumed with suicidal ideation, Sarah saw a clear shift in her thinking 12 days after the device was implanted and operational, as described in a paper published Monday in the journal Nature.
“Within a few weeks, the suicidal thoughts just disappeared,” Sarah told the Times. “Then it was just a gradual process where it was like my lens on the world changed.”
Deep brain stimulation has been used to treat Parkinson’s disease and other ailments with inconsistent results. However, Sarah’s treatment was the first documented attempt at personalizing the intervention based on her unique brain patterns.
The device hasn’t completely eliminated the patterns associated with depression, but it could help break them. Sarah told the Times she’s now better able to use the tools she learned in therapy to calm herself down, and she still takes psychiatric medication.
After trying roughly 20 different medications, shock therapy, and inpatient programs, she finally found a combined treatment that gives her some relief.
“The device has kept my depression at bay, allowing me to return to my best self and rebuild a life worth living,” Sarah said.