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Brain Implants Treat Depression in Clinical Trials

Robina Weermeijer from Unsplash

A new development for treating clinical depression based on jolting electricity to rewire the brain is in the clinical trial stage. 


According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), over 17 million adults in the United States have major depressive disorder. Although medical practices have suggested medication and therapy as treatment for generations, 30% of people worldwide have “treatment-resistant depression.” Even for the majority of people living with depression, it takes trial and error with antidepressant medications to find the right one.


In light of this, a technique has emerged to treat depression within the source: the brain. 


The technique is called deep brain stimulation. It involves doctors sending electrical pulses during and after a surgery that adds plates, drills, and electrodes onto the brain. Typically, deep brain stimulation is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, tremors and epilepsy.


However, medical professionals are currently testing its abilities with depression because there has been success with other psychologically-based conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. 


The issues stem from the fact that depression and other psychiatric conditions do not present themselves like other illnesses. Doctors can pinpoint exactly where certain illnesses and injuries reside in the body, but mental health conditions do not present themselves in the same way. People are capable of having one bad day and one good day, so it’s up to medical professionals to find significance among vague information.


However, a case study and clinical trial published in September 2023 found that there are biomarkers for depression, meaning measurements from the brain that biologically identify “depressive states.” Researchers found these biomarkers through technological platforms and artificial intelligence that allowed long-term monitoring. The markers include brain waves that indicate “transient distress” or “depression relapse.”


Stimulation features in the technology revealed the differences between “sick” and “stable response” classifications — which would, in turn, allow deep brain stimulation to qualify as a treatment itself. 


Deep brain stimulation research is not necessarily new, but its impact on identifying and treating depression has only been in practice for a few years.      


Although this clinical trial is one of the first finding success in treating depression, a study at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) was able to treat depression with deep brain stimulation in the form of a “pacemaker for the brain” back in 2021. 


One of the researchers in the initial study, Katherine Scangos MD, told UCSF that advances in neuroscience helped the research transfer over into treating depression. That has grown since

2018, which was when the initial research was conducted into matching brain activity with mood. 


“We were able to deliver this customized treatment to a patient with depression, and it alleviated her symptoms,” said Scangos. “We haven’t been able to do this kind of personalized therapy previously in psychiatry.”


Now, dozens of people around the United States have undergone brain surgery to combat their depression. It is still in the clinical trial stage, so patients are currently monitored. 

Next steps

If successful, these clinical trials could alter the trajectory of depression treatment. The medical community would be able to use scientific technology to aid patients dealing with depression. Many of the patients in these trials have tried other treatments, including therapy and medication, to no avail.

Deep brain stimulation would provide another treatment opportunity for people who struggle with depression every day.  

If you or someone you know has depression and resides in the United States, please call or text 988. If it’s an emergency, call 911.  

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