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Electric Brain Stimulation Alleviates Serious Depression


In the ongoing quest to quell depression, new research reveals that another treatment modality has been proven effective in patients who didn’t respond to standard antidepressant treatment—electric brain stimulation. Also known as vagus nerve stimulation, this method of treatment has been proven to effectively alleviate symptoms of depression.

New findings published in the medical journal Brain Stimulation show that a form of electronic brain stimulation, known as vagus nerve stimulation, catalyzes changes in brain metabolism a weeks or months prior to patients feeling relief from their depressive symptoms.

The research was conducted by a team at the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis. The depression treatment procedure is still in the early stages of development as the team is just beginning to understand how implanting certain electronic stimulation devices can lessen depression.

The study incorporated 13 patients with treatment-resistant depression. Even after several months of clinical treatment with as many as five various antidepressant medications these patients experienced little or no relief from their symptoms. The majority had experienced depressive symptoms for at least two years, although some had been clinically depressed for more than two decades.

Associate professor and co-author of the study Charles R. Conway explained that there is little precedent regarding how the treatment actually works, saying, “Previous studies involving large numbers of people have demonstrated that many with treatment-resistant depression improve with vagus nerve stimulation. But little is known about how the stimulation works to relieve depression. We focused on specific brain regions known to be connected with depression.”

Conway and his research team utilized positron emission tomography (PET) neural imaging on the depressed participants prior to their first brain stimulation, and repeated the PET scan 3 and 12 months after stimulation had begun.

Over the course of the study and treatment, 9 of the 13 patients experienced improvements in their depressive symptoms. It is worth noting, however, that several months passed before most of the patients experienced improvements. In those patients, significant changes in brain metabolism were observed following 3 months of stimulation. This metabolic change usually preceded relief from depressive symptoms by several months.

Conway goes on to say, “We saw very large changes in brain metabolism occurring far in advance of any improvement in mood. It is almost as if there’s an adaptive process that occurs. First the brain begins to function differently. Then, the patient’s mood begins to improve.”

Another finding of the study has to do with dopamine pathways. Treating these pathways may be especially important in treatment-resistant depression. PET scans showed brain changes that occur several months into treatment involve area of the brain with high concentration of brain cells that release dopamine.

Also worth noting is that many of the patients were eventually able to stop taking antidepressant medication. Although the medications worked in conjunction with the stimulation, it is the electronic nerve stimulation that is responsible for most of the improvements seen.

Depression may always be part of the human existence. Technology is proving that aid in minimizing its impact can come from many sources.


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Kevin Giles is a product of Santa Cruz, CA – the stoner capitol of the world. A born again Christian, Kevin loves his Lord Jesus and believes that his purpose in life is determined by God. He first entered drug recovery at the age of 19, suffering from an addiction to marijuana. He is a recent graduate of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master’s degree in Christian Ministry. Passionate about God’s Word, he aspires to become a pastor or missionary. Kevin has also earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from California State University, Monterey Bay. His interests include traveling, movies, golf, fitness and reading. He also enjoys being outdoors as well as spending time with friends and family. Kevin’s faith, education and life experience give him a unique perspective on addiction, recovery and spirituality.

Filed under: Conditions and Disorders, Mental Illness, Treatment · Tags: antidepressants, brain metabolism, brain stimulation, depression, positron emission tomography, vagus nerve stimulation

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