I get all piqued up whenever I hear anything new about deep brain stimulation. People like my mum, who suffer from movement problems like Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy, may be helped by a technique that involves implanting electrodes deep into the brain to give regular pulses of electricity. Efficacy as a treatment for depression is also being investigated, although findings so far have been inconsistent.
That’s why I was interested in reading this article from the MIT Technology Review. Deep brain stimulation for depression may be enhanced by the discovery of a “mood decoder,” a method for the first time to assess an individual’s emotional state by observing brain activity. These findings were just presented at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience.
Unlike Parkinson’s disease, which has been well-understood from a strictly neurological standpoint, much more remains unknown about depression. Given the wide variety of symptoms linked with depression, pinpointing which brain areas should be stimulated may be challenging.
Neuroscientists analysed the brain recordings of three out of five volunteers and found that the cingulate cortex fired in one direction when patients were feeling better and in the other direction when they were depressed. The trend held true for all three of the participants.
That is to say, in an area shared by all three persons, they were able to pinpoint the precise location of where the depression began.
Baylor College of Medicine neurosurgeon and study leader Sameer Sheth called it “the first instance of effective and consistent mood decoding of people in these brain areas.”
As is the case with many approaches to depression therapy, what helps one person may not help another. There are obvious downsides to both DBS and the experiment. To start, generalising from a small sample size to the millions of others who also experience depression would be an enormous jump. The neuroscientists are well aware of this, and as a result, they have no plans to test their method on more than a small sample size. Sheth and his colleagues, on the other hand, are looking for patterns that may be used to improve DBS. Since then, they have implanted electrodes in four other depressed individuals, with plans to eventually investigate a total of twelve.
For example, the process of having a hole bored in your skull, having probes inserted, and then having electricity sent to different regions of your brain is clearly quite dangerous. It’s pricey, too, with an average price tag of $22,802.
Even so, I think it’s a positive first step. Sheth and his colleagues have found some promising patterns that might lead to advancements in DBS technology and a deeper knowledge of depression. And just as importantly, at least in my opinion, their study brings us one step closer to normalising a condition many still dismiss as “in one’s mind”; after all, it is, strictly speaking, but now we may actually be able to see it.
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