Electric Current Could be Antidepressant

Depression treatment may come in the form of brain stimulation

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) In the classic scene from Frankenstein, a ghoulish looking man with electrodes attached to his skull starts to move and one of the scientist yells, “It’s alive, it’s alive.”

For doctors in Germany, electrodes attached to one’s skull could mean an effective treatment for depression.

A study recently published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted in the brain of a patient with severe depression, can give patients some relief.

"Talk to your doctor if you have depression symptoms."

Doctor Thomas E. Schläpfer, a professor from the Bonn University Medical Center for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, put brain pacemakers on the most severely depressed patients. The target point of the brain was something called the nucleus accumbens - which is an area known as the brain’s gratification center.

After the electrodes were attached, a weak electrical current stimulated the nerve cells, which is the same kind of treatment used by neurosurgeons and neurologists to treat muscle tremors in Parkinson’s disease.

In its 2009 study, the scientists, led by Schläpfer observed 11 patients over a period of two to five years. The patients ranged in age from 32 to 65. None had responded to standard antidepressant treatments, including pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Ten of the patients who had brain pacemakers implanted experienced some relief symptoms. Half of the subjects had a particularly noticeable response to the stimulation by the electrodes.

Schläpfer said there is evidence that these antidepressant effects are long term.

“After many years of illness, some (depressed patients) were even able to work again,” Schläpfer said.

One of the patients in the study committed suicide.

“That is unfortunate,” Schläpfer said. “However, this cannot always be prevented in the case of patients with very severe depression.”

The study’s authors pointed out that younger participants (39-years-old and younger), and those who are cognitively more able, tend to benefit more from this procedure than other participants.

Surprisingly, the authors said, there was significant improvement found in the patients ability to pay attention, memorize things as well as the patients’ functions in visual perception and executive functions.

Still, they acknowledge that there are limitations to the study because of the small sample size. And yet they hope that deep brain stimulation method may signify hope for people who suffer from the most severe forms of depressive diseases.

"However, it will still take quite a bit of time before this therapeutic method becomes a part of standard clinical practice," Schläpfer said.

This study was published in Neuropsychopharmacology, the official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and was funded in part by a grant of Medtronic, Inc., a Starting Independent Research Grant by the Ministry of Innovation, Science, Research and Technology of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. The sponsor had no influence on design and conduct of the study.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 10, 2012
Last Updated:
April 11, 2012