Five years ago, while driving home from work in Northern California, a young lady became so overcome by despair that all she could think about was taking her own life.
“I couldn’t stop weeping,” Sarah, who is now 38, remembered. “The idea that occupied me the whole time I was going down the road was just driving my vehicle into the marshes so I could drown.”
It took her a while to go home, but she eventually moved in with her parents since physicians determined that she was too ill to be left alone. She left her position as a health technology specialist since she was no longer able to perform at work.
Either she or her husband tried almost every possible treatment, including about 20 various drugs, months in a hospital day facility, electroconvulsive therapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation. However, her symptoms lingered, as they did for almost a third of the more than 250 million individuals who suffer from depression worldwide.
Sarah then became the first volunteer in an unique trial of an experimental treatment, which she participated in for the rest of her life. Her melancholy is now so controllable that she has enrolled in data analysis courses, has moved into her own apartment, and is assisting her mother, who has been hospitalized after a fall.
Suicidal ideas just vanished after a few weeks, according to Sarah, who wanted to be named only by her first name in order to preserve her privacy. “After then, it was simply a slow process where it was almost as if my perspective on the world shifted.”
According to some, the device resembles a matchbook in size and is powered by batteries. It was surgically implanted in Sarah’s brain and calibrated to detect the pattern of neural activity that occurs when she is becoming depressed, as described by the researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. It then provides electrical stimulation in the form of pulses to help prevent depression.
The researchers reported that twelve days after Sarah’s device proved fully operational in August 2020, her score on a conventional depression scale decreased to 14 from 33, and many months later, it went below 10, effectively indicating recovery, according to the researchers.
Sarah’s case is the first recorded instance of a method known as deep brain stimulation being tailored to a specific individual and effectively treating depression. A great deal more study is required before it can be determined if the method is successful and for how many patients. However, many teams of scientists are now working on methods to more closely match the electrical stimulation to what is happening in the brain of a specific patient.
People who suffer from depression do not react to conventional therapies or find the side effects unbearable in about one-third of cases. Deep brain stimulation would not be suitable for everyone due to the high expense (tens of thousands of dollars) and the dangers associated with brain surgery to install the device (infection, for example). However, if the latest efforts are successful, it is possible that a large number of people may benefit. Dr. Chang believes that the study may potentially lead to noninvasive methods that would benefit a greater number of individuals.