'Pacemaker for the brain': How a neural implant keeps a woman's depression at bay
'Pacemaker for the brain': How a neural implant keeps a woman's depression at bay
5:49

'Pacemaker for the brain': How a neural implant keeps a woman's depression at bay

Science
Speaker 1: This woman was severely depressed. Now she says she has her life back and it's not thanks to drugs or years and years of therapy, but a device that's implanted in her brain. According to the world health organization, they're around 264 million people who suffer from depression. And though there is still so much, we don't know about depression. One thing the medical community does know is that there is no one size fits all treatment. And that notion is at the core of an experiment that [00:00:30] appears to have successfully treated a woman's severe depression using a brain implant. Now, a warning we're gonna be talking about suicide and suicidal thoughts. So if that's sort of, thing is hard for you to hear about maybe consider not watching this. We only know the patient as Sarah. She wanted to keep her full identity, a secret, but in an audio recording with researchers, she says she'd been struggling with severe depression for years. Speaker 2: My daily life had become so restricted and impoverished by [00:01:00] depression that I felt too tortured. By each day, I forced myself to resist the suicidal impulses that overtook me several times an hour. Speaker 1: She says she tried every type of therapy and treatment with no results until researchers at UC San Francisco recruited her for a experimental therapy. Back in 2020, they implanted a matchbook size device, similar to this one in her brain. Now this device is designed to detect when Sarah starts becoming depressed, then it sends electrical [00:01:30] pulses through Sarah's brain to prevent that depression. Now, this is a form of treatment known as deep brain stimulation, and it's already used to treat disorders like Parkinson's DBS as a treatment for depression actually is in new. It's been studied before with mixed results, but this is the first time the stimulation has ever been customized to the patient. People Speaker 3: With depression are very different from each other. And generally depression therapy has been a one size fits all endeavor. Speaker 1: Dr. Andrew crystal is one of the lead authors [00:02:00] on the study for us. The Speaker 3: Particular kinds of symptom a person has matters because we're trying to match how we intervene to so that it fixes the specific kind of problem that they have Speaker 1: To personalize treatment for Sarah, they started by creating a map of her neural activity. They spent 10 days monitoring her neural patterns, stimulating different areas of her brain and tracking changes in her mood. What Speaker 3: We saw is that depending on where you stimulate, you could achieve several [00:02:30] different kinds of effects, a number of them that a person could find beneficial. Speaker 1: Sarah remembers that first time that stimulation took away her depression. Speaker 2: The aha moment occurred. I felt the most intensely joyous sensation and my depression was a distant nightmare for a moment. Speaker 1: And by the end of it, the researchers developed what they call Sarah's depression circuit. Speaker 3: The question was which places that we stimulated that led to the set of changes that aligned with our patient symptoms. [00:03:00] And it was one that aligned best with her Speaker 1: Symptoms. Think of it as a blueprint for what Sarah's brain looks like when she's depressed. Now, now that they had this blueprint, they could customize a DBS device to do two things. First. It could recognize when Sarah's neural activity matched her depression circuit. And when it did detect that pattern, the device could stimulate the part of her brain that had already shown to best relieve those symptoms. Speaker 3: It functions in an automated mode where it's sort of keeping [00:03:30] her depression in a way where it's not present functioning, kind of like a house thermostat. It's called a closed loop model. In a way a house thermostat might keep your temperature in your house level. This keeps the depression from increasing when it starts to increase stimulation, kicks in and makes it go away and normalizes it. Speaker 1: Sarah's been living with the device in her brain for more than a year now. And she says it's kept her depression at bay and allowed her to return to her normal life. Speaker 2: [00:04:00] When the researchers implanted the chronic device and turned it on for the first time, my life took an immediate upward turn hobbies. I used to distract myself from suicidal thoughts suddenly became pleasurable. Again. I was able to make so small decisions about what to eat without becoming stuck in a Moss indecision for hours. Sarah Speaker 1: Doesn't feel anything when the device activates. And it's important to point out that the device isn't keeping her in some sort of euphoric state all the time, like common medications do, it's [00:04:30] only kicking in when she starts to feel depressed. And doctors say the battery should last about 10 years before it needs replacing. And Sarah says, she hopes that this research will help people understand that depression is often a physical disease that can't just be willed away with a positive Speaker 2: Attitude I heard from society. I just absorbed, um, my entire life. This idea, well, you just have to keep going. You have to pull up your socks and pick yourself [00:05:00] up and you know, and then you'll be better. And it just reinforced the depression. It made me feel like I was the world's worst patient, that it was a per my own personal moral failing. No one ever says to somebody with Parkinson's oh, if you just, you know, have a positive attitude and bear up and do this, you'll cure yourself. No one says that to this, someone Speaker 1: With cancer. Now, Sarah is just the first patient to undergo this procedure. But two more are already lined up the team, leading the study plans [00:05:30] to eventually test on a total of 12 people. And Dr. Crystal told me that this procedure is at best three to five years away from FDA approval, but for those millions of people suffering from depression, there's now a treatment to be hopeful about and hold on for.

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