Here’s how personalized brain stimulation could treat depression
Stimulating certain parts of the brain can bring people in and out of consciousness. Handheld devices that send gentle pulses to the brain can help seniors remember things ..
We might be able to use a similar approach to lift our moods–something that could be life changing for people with disorders like depression. We’re not talking about general brain zaps. The goal is to create personalized devices that monitor your brain activity and optimize it.
We already use brain stimulation to treat mood disorders. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has been used since the 1940s. Despite its terrible reputation, helped in no part by disturbing portrayals as in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, ECT can be a lifeline for some.
Newer forms of brain stimulation may also be helpful in treating mood disorders. Surgically implanting an electrode deep inside the brain to deliver pulses of electricity can help some people with depression; it is considered a “promising” treatment. A noninvasive treatment that uses magnetic fields to affect brain activity has been approved in the US for major depressive disorder.
But none of these methods are perfect. They don’t work for everyone. It might be better to tailor brain stimulation to each individual. Each person has a unique brain that develops and matures over time. Brain activity patterns change with our moods and also with the day. It would be much more beneficial to understand what is going on in a person’s brain at any particular moment and adjust brain activity accordingly.
It’s exciting stuff. Shanechi and her colleagues made headlines a few years back with their “mood coder”, a tool that allowed them to track brain activity and determine how someone was feeling. The team monitored activity in the brains and brains of epilepsy patients who had electrodes temporarily implanted so that doctors could investigate the cause.
Shanechi and her colleagues asked seven such volunteers to fill out questionnaires describing their mood, and how it changed throughout the day, over several days. The researchers were able to correlate brain activity patterns with different moods.
The resulting mood decoder enabled the researchers to identify how each of the volunteers was feeling on the basis of readouts from the electrodes in their brains. This technology could be used more widely to allow us to see into the minds and well-beings of people with mood disorders.
Now Shanechi and her colleagues are working to create what they call a “closed loop” system. This device monitors brain activity and detects when things are not going as planned. It then stimulates the brain to restore things to normal, whatever that may be for each individual. This device should help users regulate their moods. Shanechi says, “The idea was that you could personalize the therapy to meet the individual’s needs.”
At the moment, the team is developing computer models that can interpret brain recordings. Any device must be able not only to decode mood but also to determine the best way to restore brain activity. Shanechi hopes that such models will eventually be used in conjunction with wireless brain electrodes. There’s tantalizing evidence that it could work, demonstrated by a woman called Sarah. University of California, San Francisco installed a similar closed loop system to track a particular pattern of brain activity. This pattern seemed to be apparent when Sarah’s symptoms of depression were particularly severe. Although not a mood decoder, the device would deliver a pulse to electricity.
It worked. As Sarah said at a press conference last year: “My depression has been kept at bay, and that’s allowed me to start rebuilding a life that’s worth living.”
My colleague Charlotte Jee covered Sarah’s story in more detail last year.
Brain stimulation has been explored for so many brain functions. Noninvasive stimulation can even improve the memory of older people, as demonstrated in a study I covered.
Earlier this year, I wrote about a “memory prosthesis”— a set of implanted electrodes designed to mimic the way the brain creates memories
Brain electrodes tend to be rigid and can trigger the development of scar tissue in the brain. So scientists are working on soft mesh versions, Julia Sklar reported in 2016.
Nathan Copeland, who uses a brain implant to control a computer, wants to play mind-controlled Pong against a monkey equipped with a similar implant, as Antonio Regalado reported last year.
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I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.