When I see news about deep brain stimulation, I perk up. The procedure – which involves implanting electrodes deep into the brain to deliver regular pulses of electricity – is used to treat people like my mother with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. Researchers are also investigating whether it can be used to treat depression, but results on that front have been decidedly mixed.
There is a reason why this story published by MIT Technology Review spotted. Neuroscientists have discovered a “mood decoder” – a way to measure a person’s mood by just looking at their brain activity for the first time – that could improve deep brain stimulation for depression. The research was recently presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting.
Unlike Parkinson’s, depression is something we still don’t fully understand from a purely neurological perspective. It is difficult to find out which brain regions are associated with depression, given that there are so many symptoms, and thus a challenge to find out what to stimulate.
After analyzing the brain recordings of three out of five volunteers, neuroscientists discovered that a part of the brain called the cingulate cortex fired one way when a patient felt better and the opposite way when they felt low. The pattern was the same for all three volunteers.
In other words, they actually could see where some of the depressive symptoms arose in an area common to all three people.
“This is the first demonstration of successful and consistent human mood decoding in these brain regions,” said Sameer Sheth, who leads the trial and is a neurosurgeon based at Baylor College of Medicine.
Of course, like many depression treatments, what works for one person doesn’t always work for others. DBS and the trial itself clearly have several disadvantages. First, it’s a huge leap to conclude that it will work for the millions who suffer from depression when you’ve only studied a few people. However, there is one thing the neuroscientists are aware of – in fact, they don’t even intend to replicate the procedure on more than just a couple of people. Rather, Sheth and his team are trying to find patterns they can use to make DBS more effective. To that end, they have since implanted electrodes in four other people with major depression and now plan to study twelve in total.
For another, as you can imagine, having a hole drilled into your head, probing and then sending electricity to various parts of your brain is, well, obviously very risky. It’s expensive too, and can cost an average of $22,802.
But it is a good step forward. Sheth and his team are already beginning to identify some trends that may be useful in improving DBS and understanding depression. And just as importantly, to me at least, their work moves us one step further towards destigmatizing a condition many still believe is “in one’s head” – which technically it is, but now it may just be a way for us to See that .