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The 10% of the people worldwide who will experience some form of depression in their lives are very fortunate that there are many treatment options available today —but not everyone responds to them in the same way. Online depression support communities Depression & The Internet: Welcome To Your Temporary Support Group Depression & The Internet: Welcome To Your Temporary Support Group Talking is important, and sometimes the Internet is a good substitute when your real life friends aren't around. Here are three sites I recommend for less formal depression-focused conversations. Read More , medications, and psychotherapy just don’t cut it for some people.

Now, a fascinating form of treatment is gaining ground and may change the way we view the treatment of mental disorders.

A Short Aside on the Nature of Depression

Many people will wonder why researchers are looking into advanced and frankly, risky, treatments to help alleviate the symptoms of depression—so before getting into the details, I’d like to take a moment to fill you in on some lesser-known facts about the disorder.

First of all, there are many degrees of depression. Some people experience it in response to traumatic events and feel down for a few days. Some people deal with occasional bouts that affect them for a couple weeks or a month.

But major depression, which is what we’re talking about here, is different. It’s persistent, and can last many years, or even throughout an entire lifetime. It’s characterized by sadness, low self-esteem, loss of interest in activities that are usually enjoyable, and can disrupt many parts of a person’s day-to-day life. It may also include thoughts of suicide or self-harm. In serious cases, people may not be able to socialize, work, or even care for themselves.

sad-depressed-girl

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And while antidepressant medications are very often effective in treating these symptoms, some people experience treatment-resistant depression in which no treatments seem to help. The technology discussed in this article is important because it can help people with this type of depression—severely disruptive and resistant to traditional treatments.

If you want more information about depression, you can start by checking out these five websites for depression and bipolar support 5 Health Websites You Can Tap For Online Support On Depression & Bipolar Disorder 5 Health Websites You Can Tap For Online Support On Depression & Bipolar Disorder Read More .

Deep-Brain Stimulation

One of the most fascinating treatments for depression that’s currently being tested is deep-brain stimulation, in which a light electrical current is applied to specific parts of the brain that are involved in mood regulation. This stimulation, in many cases, results in a profound antidepressant effect, allowing some people who have lived with debilitating depression to continue on with their lives.

Major depression isn’t the only condition for which deep-brain stimulation has been prescribed; it’s also used in the treatment of Parkinson’s symptoms, Tourette’s, epilepsy, and chronic pain, with varying degrees of success.

The mechanical and electrical principles behind this stimulation are actually quite simple; small electrodes are inserted into the brain through holes drilled into the skull. These electrodes are controlled by a small device, much like a pacemaker, that’s implanted elsewhere in the patient’s body, such as below the skin on the chest. This device generates the impulses that are sent through wires to the electrodes.

nerve-stimulator-xray

The device can also be used to turn the electric current on and off. Because the system can be disrupted by magnetic fields, allowing the patient to turn the current off and then back on can be convenient.

Interestingly, scientists still don’t fully understand the way in which deep-brain stimulation works and how it causes the effects that it does.

Deep-Brain Stimulation for Depression

Despite a number of controversies (which we’ll discuss in a moment), and no matter how little doctors understand about the mechanisms behind deep-brain stimulation, it’s clear that, at least in some cases, it works wonders. In an interview with Huffington Post earlier this year, Brandy Ellis stated that the stimulator implant changed her life:

Now that I have persevered through the episode, and had the surgery, I get to build a new ‘me.’ I’m changing my behaviors beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. I am creating a new life based on what I value, because my goal has been to never return to the life I had before. I get the opportunity to implement all the tools from therapy that I have learned, with the hope that they will help me be more effective. Now that I have my implant, life is all possibilities.

And there are others who have said similar things. You can read a great first-person account of the pains of depression and the hope that an effective deep-brain stimulator brought to Liss Murphy, a Boston woman, at WBUR’s CommonHealth. And there are a number of others.

The evidence goes beyond first-person accounts. A German team trialed a deep-brain stimulation depression treatment last year and found that six of the seven patients’ symptoms improved “considerably and rapidly.” This particular study used electrical currents to target the brain’s reward system. A number of other studies have come up with similar findings.

woman-happy-fall

But not everyone is convinced.

A number of people are skeptical of the efficacy of these treatments, and with good reason. First of all, while some studies have shown solid improvements in participants, a few have shown that the treatments are only as effective as more standard, less-invasive treatments. And if a treatment as risky, complicated, and expensive as implanting electrodes in the brain isn’t any more effective than prescribing medications, there’s no reason to continue studying it.

Let’s clear up what “risky” means. Any procedure that involves drilling holes in the skull is going to be risky. While neurosurgeons are really great at what they do, and take every necessary precaution, there are always going to be some risks, like infections caused by the implanted hardware, or bleeding on the brain. For the most part, the operations are safe . . . but the risk adds another factor to why some people are skeptical of the treatment.

Beyond the cost/benefit analysis of the procedure, there’s the question of whether or not we’ve studied it enough. Many of the studies have only used a handful of participants, and some of them weren’t performed in a properly scientific, controlled manner with placebos and double blinds.

A Promising Technology

With all of the conflicting positive and negative results, it’s difficult to tell what the future holds for this sort of treatment. That being said, medical technology is advancing all the time, and with better targeting and analytical abilities, it seems likely that the efficacy of this treatment is likely to increase.

In addition to that, there’s the argument that even if science can’t prove it to be effective, it’s possible that it still works for many people, and shouldn’t be discounted (take acupuncture for example; I have personal experience with some of the amazing effects that it has, but the scientific jury is still out).

Needless to say, with the number of people suffering from major depression to the point where they can’t work or socialize, interest in treatments like this one remains high—as it does with other experimental treatments, like optogenetics, the application of light to genetically modified cells in the brain Brain Control With Light: It's Possible With Optogenetics Brain Control With Light: It's Possible With Optogenetics Over just the last few years, a new technique called "optogenetics" is emerging, which may help scientists to unravel the brain's secrets (and treat its disorders) in an entirely new way. Read More .

What do you think? Should we be messing around with how the brain functions by applying electricity? Would you be interested in undergoing a treatment like this to treat severe depression? Share  your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credits: Hellerhoff via Wikimedia Commons, Woman feeling so along via ShutterstockNerve Stimulator, X-Ray via ShutterstockFall lifestyle concept, harmony freedom. Casual young woman girl relaxing in autumnal park sitting on bench with book having fun, closed eyes. Golden colorful leaves background via Shutterstock.

  1. mark
    February 12, 2015 at 1:11 am

    Yes I would like to try the implants I live in chicago I have been fighting depression for 47 years .I would really like help

    • Dann Albright
      February 12, 2015 at 10:40 am

      Sorry to hear that you're struggling with it, Mark! I know how difficult it can be (though I've been fortunate enough to be able to find antidepressants that work well for me). Getting involved in clinical trials like this might be an interesting way to see if some other sorts of therapy will work for you. You could try getting in touch with some universities in Chicago to see if they're working on anything like this and find out if you can get involved!

  2. PatL
    December 1, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Thanks for the helpful article and comments. I'm not sure that DBT would be any more dangerous that ECT.
    I have done well with medication and cognitive therapy, but there are others in my family who have had very little success. One had a measure of success with ECT, but found that it resulted in memory loss. Since he previously had a photographic memory, this was devastating.

    • Dann Albright
      December 2, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      I'm not surprised that he experienced a bit of memory loss—the brain is a ridiculously complicated system, and doing something like applying an electric current isn't an exact science. That said, a lot of people do find that it's the only thing that works, so there's still a place for it. As for it being more or less dangerous than DBT, I think we'll have to wait and see. Using implantable electrodes should enable better targeting of specific areas, but even if we can do that, we need to know that those areas are the ones we want. I'm really looking forward to following this technology as it develops!

  3. DJ
    November 25, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Generally do not find daytime TV credible, but Dr. Oz did a segment on it awhile back. link to view is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XC0Mmhw3y3c where they discuss and demonstrate the use of TMS as treatment for depression.

    With regards to the study on its efficacy for Bipolar disorder, there is at least one study currently being conducted at UCLA. I have no information as to where that study stands or as to if or when it would get FDA approval. I have to assume there are other concurrent studies being conducted elsewhere.

    • Dann Albright
      November 29, 2014 at 2:35 pm

      Interesting! I'll have to check that clip out. I'd definitely like to learn more about TMS as a treatment option. I'll keep my eyes open for more research as it comes out, too. Thanks for the comment!

  4. DJ
    November 25, 2014 at 4:32 am

    The article does fail to mention ECT, which has proven effective and is not the ECT of the past, a la "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest". It is proving very effective for those who do not respond to standard treatments of therapy, behavior modification, and pharmacological methodologies.

    More cutting edge treatments that are non-invasive and proving very effective is TMS.
    Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation.
    A highly promising treatment that uses a magnetic field to stimulate a specific "reward" area of the brain - for lack of a better term - to increase neural connections in that area. The theory being depressed people do not feel pleasure and good results of experiences and behaviors due to deficient neural connections in this area. TMS is targeting this area and having some amazing results. The treatments are non-invasive and virtually free of pain.
    FDA has already approved it for treatment of "normal depression" with additional trials ongoing right now to get approval for Bi-Polar Depression. Treatment is outpatient, and generally involves numerous visits for a month or so and little more after that.

    • Dann Albright
      November 25, 2014 at 11:50 am

      It was an oversight to not mention ECT, though DBS is a different animal. I hadn't heard about TMS being used to treat depression—that's really interesting. There's a research group at my university that uses TMS a lot, and I think it's an absolutely fascinating technology. I'm not surprised that they're using it to treat depression, but the mechanism is a big surprising. I hadn't heard the idea that there are deficient neural connections in that area . . . it makes some sense, intuitively, though. I have to look into this now!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Mizrable
    November 25, 2014 at 1:51 am

    I haven't been successful getting there as yet. Every Psychiatrist that I go to, ignores the previous doctor's data & I've had to start over several times. Seems the qualified doctors are great at their profession but lousy at business. So I'm still trying to find my way there. What I know of the procedure is that it's done on an outpatient basis using a mild sedative. The equipment is the same as used in the 1960's but at a much lower power level and for a very short time (less than a minute). ECT is as variable to the individual as any oral medicine. They tend to gauge effectiveness after 6-8 sessions and can go to 10-12 for reasonable treatment. Long term success is also variable with some needing to have one series of treatments and others may have to come back and repeat the cycle, perhaps several times. I've used anti-depressants for the past 10 years, having to change types on several occasions usually due to my body adapting to the med. I feel fortunate in that at present I'm stable and without side effects. The downside is that while I have no desire to harm myself, I feel that I merely exist rather than live.

    • Dann Albright
      November 25, 2014 at 11:48 am

      I definitely understand about having to start over each time you see a professional. I feel like I have to do that with doctors whenever I move and need to get my meds re-prescribed. Seems like a big waste of time, but there's no way around it.

      If you're hoping to give ECT a shot, I hope you have the opportunity to try it! Good to hear that you're responding to meds, even if you have to change them occasionally.

  6. Mizrable
    November 22, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    My family has a genetic predisposition to mental illness. I'm fortunate in only having to suffer from life long depression. I have taken meds for the past 10 years and find they're good enough to keep me from the brink, but not good enough to appreciate being alive. I have tried for several years to get Electro Convulsive Therapy which is the old style "shock treatment" from the 1960's but a much lower and controlled voltage. This is my next to last choice with DBS as the last straw. Seems the statistics are similar with ECT but much less invasive.

    Please don't feel sorry for me. We're all given challenges to deal with in life that we have to overcome. You do the best you can and keeping moving on.

    • Dann Albright
      November 24, 2014 at 8:35 am

      When I was doing research on this topic, I didn't see many mentions of ECT, and I was quite surprised by that. It seems to me like they'd be quite similar, though I don't really know the details of ECT. Have you ever tried it?

  7. MikeB
    November 22, 2014 at 8:10 am

    I would like to recommend The Planet Trillaphon as it Relates to the Bad Thing, by David Foster Wallace as a reading for people who do not have depression. I just read it yesterday, and for the first time felt I had some idea what depression means. I was recently diagnosed with Parkinsons, and although it doesn't cause me much hassle yet, I imagine it will in the coming years, so I am all in favor of any of these brain experiments, even though I doubt I will be in a position to afford this if and when I need it.

    • Dann Albright
      November 24, 2014 at 8:34 am

      Thanks for the book recommendation! I've never heard of it, but it sounds very interesting. As for Parkinson's, I think deep brain stimulation is a better-attested treatment for that than it is for depression. So who knows? Maybe you'll have a chance to try it some day.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  8. Menatoorus
    November 22, 2014 at 7:14 am

    It's the perfect time to declare that the brain in an organ, and this very organ contains the so called soul , memory , emotions, decision making capability , etc.
    Emotions and mood variations are biochemical phenomena that have nothing to do with superstitions and metaphysics.
    Psychiatry doesn't complain of shortage in anti-depressant medicines.
    The real problem of depression is not it's being resistant to treatment. The resistance comes from the willing of the depressed patients to seek proper help.
    Bipolarity of mood ( manic- depressive alterations) gives the sitation an added flavour of treatment resistance, since the patient experiences a false sense of improvement every time his/her mood makes the reverse shift towards one extremity.
    Deep brain stimulation is lagging behind in its infancy, due to many technical difficulties. The ongoing discovery of new drugs will keep it as a last choice in the best.

    • Dann Albright
      November 24, 2014 at 8:32 am

      You're right that a lot of people are very hesitant to seek treatment for depression, and that will likely be a problem for quite a while. Fortunately, there are some great organizations out there seeking to eradicate the stigma of depression. I disagree, however, that this treatment will be a "last choice in the best." While we will probably discover better drugs, there will always be people who don't respond to them. Isn't having more treatments better?

  9. A. Cook
    November 22, 2014 at 6:08 am

    Thank you for the interesting article. Perhaps this will help many people beset with treatment resistant major clinical depression.
    The problem that I see with this type of information is that it will be misused, misinterpreted, and give a false sense of the complete eradication of this horrid condition.
    Aggravating to the potential success of this therapy is that the nature of so-called mental illness is a dualism, as people believe in a distinct separation of mind and the brain. Read Rene Descartes ' theory on the mind/body split.
    I believe the treatment of an organ like the brain which controls thought and perception, as well as hormonal and corporeal ailments, will take more than generalized stimulation. Because the brain is so intricate that lengthy and expensive trials will not be funded by the pharmaceutical companies, as the need for continual production of medicine is the basis of huge economic concerns. The government of the U.S. will not find this to the extent that major progress will swiftly form concrete data that allows the public to choose if this is viable, or needed, or cared about.
    When this therapy can be fine-tuned enough to effectively alleviate symptoms if needs must be further taken into account that no two people will respond with the same efficacy.
    This fantastic and exciting technology will be sabotaged, if only by it's inherent nature , as a costly and unsure treatment.
    The reality of this clean and optimistic and humanitarian research is that it will be perhaps a wonderful means to an end.
    The other positive is the parallel and related research that it will spurn.
    I know a great deal about the importance of this and other treatments.
    I am 44 and have severe depression. For over 25 years I have seen and read with hope of my eventual alleviation of symptoms. I also have been denied Civil Rights, societal understanding, and because of a flawed insurance conceit I have had to beg almost for the right to the minimal treatments I have received.
    This may sway no one. I have a good life and I am a good citizen.
    That said, I will die before this therapy would allow me to become a socially viable.candidate.
    This could help the rich, charity cases, and the connected.
    I think this is a fair evaluation of the topic. Without perspective nothing will move forward. What is important is arbitrary.
    This is important to me and anyone with the empathy, or even the unknown caring towards these people. I hope this is read.

    • Dann Albright
      November 24, 2014 at 8:30 am

      I understand your doubts about this—and I certainly agree that it's an "expensive and unsure" treatment. But isn't that how a lot of different treatments start? I would imagine that the first pacemakers were expensive and less than a sure thing, but now they're very common. Also, why do you think that research on this won't get funded? I understand that pharmaceutical companies will want to keep the focus on medications, but there are plenty of sources of funding that projects like this can take advantage of.

  10. Chris P.
    November 22, 2014 at 6:03 am

    I would try it in a second with no hesitation.

    • Dann Albright
      November 24, 2014 at 8:25 am

      Well, maybe you'll have the chance to some day! Obviously there are a lot of tests it has to pass before it becomes widespread, but it looks like there's at least some promise.

  11. Y
    November 22, 2014 at 5:18 am

    If I thought that having holes drilled in my head would help with my incredibly persistent depression I would stand in line in the rain for the chance...

    • Dann Albright
      November 24, 2014 at 8:24 am

      Why do you think that this sort of treatment wouldn't work?

  12. Marshall Brown
    November 21, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    The only worry I have about such devices is EMP. Way bad for these and, I might add, my pace maker. Just something else to become depressed about.

    • Dann Albright
      November 22, 2014 at 10:09 am

      Yeah, that's definitely a concern. In one of the articles that I read in researching this topic, they mentioned that airport metal detectors could disrupt it, and it sounds like it would automatically turn off; it could then be turned back on by the wearer. So it's possible that they've already thought about something like that. I would imagine that you wouldn't want a killswitch like that in a pacemaker!

    • Jolting Joe
      November 24, 2014 at 7:08 am

      Don't need to find depressing things, to feel that way, when you are in a depressive state. Blue skys and sunlight will only remind you that you can't enjoy anything. Sometimes, sad things only serve to comfort you because it is normal to feel down about it. You get to be just like everyone else. But a jolt to the head can't be any worse than alcohol. Or standing down by the train tracks, thinking it over.

    • Dann Albright
      November 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm

      Not sure what you're getting at here, Joe. "But a jolt to the head can't be any worse than alcohol." Are you suggesting that alcohol is a viable treatment? Or that DBS is in some way similar to that? I'm a bit confused.

  13. Kal
    November 20, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    If you are suffering from depression, I recommend the destroydepression.com system.
    Written by a former sufferer of depression, it teaches a simple 7-step process to eliminate depression from your life.

    • Dann Albright
      November 25, 2014 at 11:58 am

      Have you used this system? I just checked out the website, and it looks a bit suspect. While it's possible that someone could just decide to just start researching how to deal with "PTSD and severe depression" and be that successful in three months, I have to say that I'm very skeptical. Especially because he doesn't seem to share any useful information about what's in the program. Is it based on specific types of therapy? Homeopathy? What sorts of things are involved?

      I'd be really curious to know whatever you can tell me about the system!

  14. Doc
    November 20, 2014 at 12:00 am

    If this had been ready for advanced trials, perhaps we wouldn't have lost Robin Williams recently. *sniff*

    • Dann Albright
      November 20, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      There's no way to know, Doc, but you have a good point. If depression was a bit less stigmatized and more serious treatments were receiving more press and support, it's possible that something like this could already be in advanced trials or even further.

      Keep reading, and keep supporting what people are doing out there!

    • Godel
      November 22, 2014 at 12:09 am

      Robin Williams' problems went way beyond simple depression. He had early onset Alzheimer's, plus a couple of other physically based complications.

    • Dann Albright
      November 22, 2014 at 10:04 am

      You bring up a good point, Godel. There are always a number of factors in play. Mental health is a complicated issue, and even a great treatment for one particular set of symptoms won't address symptoms of another disorder. Sometimes it can even exacerbate them. They're still doing a lot of testing on this type of treatment, so hopefully they'll have a better idea in the near future of how this tech might help.

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