Sarah, a 36-year-old woman living in California, had been living with chronic depression for five years. She felt suicide several times an hour and was unable to make decisions on basic issues such as what to eat. Nothing she had tried to treat it, including electroconvulsive therapy, had helped.
Then, in June 2020, she had an implant inserted into her skull that zaps the parts of her brain that are causing her illness. The remarkable results published in Nature Medicine today increase the prospect of personal treatments for people with severe mental illnesses who do not respond to therapy or medication.
“My depression has been kept at a distance and it has allowed me to start rebuilding a life worth living,” Sarah said at a news conference. (Her last name was not disclosed.)
Installing the device involved several steps. First, the University of California, San Francisco team used 10 electrodes to map Sarah’s brain activity. This phase took 10 days, during which time the team found that high activity levels in a particular part of Sarah’s amygdala predicted the onset of severe depression. They also found that a small burst of electricity to another region of her brain, called the ventral striatum, significantly improved these symptoms. They then implanted a neurostimulation device and set it up to trigger a tiny pulse of electricity in this area when it detects high activity levels associated with depression symptoms.
Sarah (pictured above) cannot feel these electricity bursts, which is just as good as they go up to 300 times a day; each lasts for six seconds. The device delivers no zaps at night because they lead to feelings of energy and alertness, which can interfere with Sarah’s ability to sleep.