Rachel Fieldhouse

Mind

Brain implant helps woman’s severe depression

Brain implant helps woman’s severe depression

A woman battling severe depression has had a life-changing experience after she received a personalised brain implant.

“It’s like my lens on the world changed,” said Sarah, the research volunteer who received the implant.

Though the device was tailored specifically for Sarah’s brain and may not work as a treatment for others, psychiatrist and neural engineer Alik Widge says it is significant because it serves as a way to study how brain activity changes during depression.

A team of researchers from the University of California implanted temporary wire electrodes into Sarah’s brain, allowing them to monitor the brain activity that corresponded to her depression symptoms.

For Sarah, a fast brain wave called a gamma wave appeared in her amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotions, that was associated with her symptoms.

Image: Maurice Ramirez / UCSF

The team then worked to uncover a way to interrupt the signal, and identified a potential area to target: the ventral capsule/ventral striatum (VC/VS).

When they applied tiny jolts of electrical currents to the area, Sarah’s mood improved.

“We could learn the road map of Sarah’s brain in a way that we could really improve her depression symptoms,” Katherine Scangos, an associate professor in psychiatry, said in a news briefing in September.

While the researchers were mapping her brain, Sarah would feel joy when the right spot was stimulated.

“I laughed out loud,” she said in the briefing.

“This was the first time I had spontaneously laughed and smiled where it wasn’t faked or forced in five years.”

Since the initial experiment, surgeons implanted a more permanent device into her brain.

The device was programmed to detect when the gamma signals in Sarah’s amygdala reached high levels and respond by sending a jolt of electricity to her VC/VS.

The stimulation was calibrated so Sarah wouldn’t feel the jolts, but she said they would leave her feeling more energetic.

“As time goes on, it’s been this virtuous cycle, a spiral upwards,” she said. 

“Everything has gotten easier and easier.”

The research describing the technology used to make Sarah’s first implant was published in Nature Medicine, and revealed that the effects Sarah felt occurred over two months.

The approach required a lot of sophisticated technology, including imaging and machine learning technology.

Helen Mayburg, a neurologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, cautioned that its complex nature may make it difficult to turn into a wider treatment.

But, the results contain information that is valuable to those looking to understand the effect of depression on the brain and how it can be changed.

She said, “What we all want to know is, ‘How does this work?’”

Image: Jon Lok / UCSF

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