Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Electrically stimulating the brain aids in depression

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is a promising technique that modifies the activity of brain areas by electrically stimulating them. It has been shown to work in reducing symptoms of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, but also seems to work in patients that suffer from depression. That is what scientists from Emory University School of Medicine have concluded. Aside from a general depression, the treatment also worked for participants suffering from a bipolar depression, characterized by 'mood swings' that range from depression to mania.

The researchers electrically stimulated the participants for a total of 28 weeks, and followed them up for about two years after the treatment started. After two years, almost all participants, seventeen in total, responded to the treatment. Additionally, ten of them did not experience any symptoms of depression after the two year follow-up. And that is a remarkable result, considering that the participants did not respond to conventional treatment prior to the study.

DBS works by sticking long wires with electrodes into specific parts of the brain. The electric pulses generate activity in the brain, and this may in some cases alleviate symptoms. In Alzheimer's, for example, the memory system of the brain is deteriorating, but by electrically stimulating that area, memory cells are able to grow back.  The scientists from Emory did not state clearly where they implanted the electrodes in depression patients.

Future studies
Because the results from the, rather limited, study on depression are promising, the scientists will continue to improve their treatment, which hopefully ups the percentage of patients that benefit from DBS. Previous studies have shown that electrical stimulation works in other diseases of the brain. It is a peculiar treatment, as nobody really knows why it works, but it is effective in a broad range of brain malfunctions. Even more interesting, perhaps, is that it is possible to improve the efficacy of the treatment simply by thinking about it. Taken together, it is likely that DBS will be used frequently in the near future, and not only for depression. 

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