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“Brain Pacemakers”—A breakthrough in treatment of depression?

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For anyone who has been affected by depression  it is no secret how devastating the disease can be for them and their families. But if the results from a small study published by a group at Germany’s Bonn University Hospital hold up, there could be a radical transformation in the treatment of depression.

The authors reported that six of seven severely depressed test subjects showed a significant reduction in symptoms such as “anxiety, despondence, listlessness and joylessness” – within a matter of days of starting the treatment. And the results appear to be long lasting—as much as 18 months.

One quote is especially poignant. “After months of deep sadness, a first smile appears on a patient’s face. For many years, she had suffered from major depression and tried to end her life several times. She had spent the past years mostly in a passive state on her couch; even watching TV was too much effort for her. Now this young woman has found her joie de vivre again, enjoys laughing and travelling.”

Deep brain stimulation has been used before with partial success.  In earlier studies, the implant was placed in the nucleus accumbens region of the brain. In the new study, the medial forebrain bundle was targeted.

ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom comments, “This is potentially huge. Although current antidepressants are effective for many people, about one-third of patients will not have adequate responses to any of the drugs, which also carry a host of side effects. A non-pharmacological approach to depression would be an enormous advantage.” He adds, “This should also help reinforce the idea that depression is a physical disease of the brain—not just a bad mood. Telling someone to ‘snap out of it’ is like telling someone with Parkinson’s to stop shaking.”

ACSH’S Dr. Gilbert Ross added, “It has long been known that electroconvulsive therapy — ECT or “shock treatment” — is often effective in alleviating severe depression, although the precise mechanism of its beneficial effects are not well understood. Also, the effects often short duration, and adverse reactions including some memory loss have been impediments to widespread use. Popular perceptions based on old movies are also a problem when offering this therapy to patients. I would assume that the current study’s electrostimulation works to counter depression similarly to ECT’s mechanism. Obviously larger and longer-term studies are needed but hopefully this simple procedure will help to reduce the toll of a devastating illness.


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