Her Depression Was Untreatable — Until Two Electrodes Were Implanted in Her Brain

How researchers are changing the brain’s messaging system to tackle mental health disorders

Mark Humphries
Elemental
Published in
6 min readNov 22, 2021

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Credit: Pixabay

There’s a disturbingly long list of ways in which the brain can go wrong. I might name for you a sample of mental health conditions: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, anxiety disorders of all kinds, obsessive compulsive disorder. Even just the list of movement disorders is miserably long: Parkinson’s disease and all its many related forms, Huntington’s disease, dystonia, Tourette’s syndrome. I would continue, but it’s all, well, depressing.

The lists are complex because your brain is complex. There are myriad ways for it to malfunction. And, because of this, each one of those disorders has linked to it myriad causes, from mutations in genes, through misfolded, clumped proteins, to the death of brain cells.

So when we want to treat a disorder, how do we know what to go after? What should we target, and how do we fix it? A stunning new breakthrough in treating depression shows one compelling answer: we go after how the brain’s neurons talk to each other.

In a new paper in Nature Medicine, Katherine Scangos and colleagues report successfully treating a woman who’d not only had episodes of severe clinical depression since childhood, but for whom neither the seemingly endless array of anti-depressant drugs nor electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) made a dent. And as ECT is putting you under with a general anaesthetic and then passing an electric current across your brain to deliberately give you a seizure, it was already a last-resort treatment. This deeply unfortunate patient had clinical depression as untreatable as it gets: until now.

Written down, Scangos and colleagues’ new treatment seems disarmingly simple. They put two electrodes in her brain, and every time the first electrode picked up the electrical signatures of depression in one part of the brain, the second electrode automatically delivered a steady stream of pulses of electric current into another, 120 times a second, for 6 seconds. The first electrode is the radically new part, because it makes the treatment “closed-loop”: the…

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Mark Humphries
Elemental

Theorist & neuroscientist. Writing at the intersection of neurons, data science, and AI. Author of “The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds”