For those of us that struggle daily with depression or any other mental illness, it can be incredibly debilitating. Finding the right medication to help treat and manage our symptoms is a lot like rolling the dice; everybody’s depression is different and what works for one person might give the other person suicidal thoughts. Not only does this get incredibly expensive when you’re trying to find the right medication, but it can get frustrating and discouraging. As such, many resort to just managing their symptoms on their own and this can have dire consequences.
Therapy and medication, once you’ve found what works for you, can definitely improve your wellbeing, but it doesn’t fix the issue; instead, you’re managing your symptoms. Obviously this is better than the alternative of feeling like absolute misery on a daily basis, but you’re not fixing the problem. You’re simply rewrapping a leaky pipe with tape and hoping that it holds.
And if you have tremors, the news can be even more bleak. Great advances have been made, but a lot of people are still left trying their best to manage the symptoms. For a lot of people, medication can lessen the power of the tremors, but it can’t eradicate them altogether. This leaves people at the mercy of their body and they have to alter their every day lives in order to live with the condition. This can include physical therapy, lifestyle changes, and even changing how you eat to accommodate the tremors. Once again, we’re only managing the issues instead of correcting them.
Fixing the actual issues, however, has been a thing of dreams and fantasies until recently. Now scientists have begun experimenting with brain implants that can not only alter our moods, but fix the actual problems causing the tremors or depression. Sounds too good to be true or like something out of a sci-fi movie or comic, right? We thought so too at first, but we assure that it’s very much a real thing that’s being done. And so far, the results are extremely promising.
Fixing short circuits within the brain
Every single thought we have, including our fears and sadness, as well as sensations and movements all stem from electrical blips courtesy of billions of neurons that are present within our brain. These streams of electricity flow from neural centers and are responsible for the actions of the body and the brain. Because of this, many scientists believe that a lot of psychiatric and neurological disorders may actually be the result of circuits that aren’t functioning properly.
Think of your brain in the way that you think of your desktop computer. There are a bunch of circuits, wires, ports, and streams of electricity that are responsible for powering your device and insuring that it functions properly. Even though some of these may be smaller than half the size of a grain of rice (think the circuit chips), if one is malfunctioning you’ll definitely notice. Your computer needs all of these things to function and run properly. Even something as small as one malfunctioning circuit chip (or in your brain’s case a handful of tiny electrodes out of the billions present) can screw everything up. Your brain is the same way; if there’s a short circuit somewhere in that pink mass, then you’ll definitely see signs of it in the form of depression, anxiety, tremors, OCD, etc.
And even though it’s hard to believe that something the size of an electrode can affect you on such a powerful level, scientists are convinced that these short circuits, regardless of how insignificant they may seem, are responsible for many of the neurobiological illnesses that plague us.
Over the course of time, scientists have invested a lot of time and research into furthering their understanding of the brain and its circuits. Many have speculated that if they could just reach these malfunctioning circuits and reroute the flow, they can treat underlying neurobiological issues that cause depression, tremors, and more. And if we once again think of brain in the way that we think of our computer, it makes a lot of sense. If something is short-circuiting or isn’t functioning properly, then rerouting/fixing the problem would fix the overall issue, right?
Deep brain stimulation: what is it and how does it work?
Even though we’re really just now hearing about this, deep brain stimulation is not a new or foreign concept. Scientists have been toying with the idea for a while. They’ve also been doing deep brain stimulation, which is essentially what would fix our brains, since the 1930s. Of course at this time, they were using electroconvulsive therapy. This arguably causes more problems than it fixes and is extremely controversial. However to this day, people still seek mild forms of electroconvulsive therapy to help their depression and tremors.
If the idea of shocking your brain into cooperating isn’t in your wheelhouse of things you’re willing to try, don’t worry. Scientists won’t be strapping your head to a table, sliding a wooden block into your mouth and frying your brain in order to correct the issues. Deep brain stimulation has come a long way from its crude historical roots.
Neurosurgeons have been “touching” brain areas with electrodes for a long time and observing the results. However, we weren’t able to paint a very clear picture until recently. Most of it was guess work; we didn’t really know what exactly we wanted to target and of course the electrodes weren’t always the most reliable or precise for that matter. And of course, the results were also up for debate.
Now of course, we have a much more detailed map of the brain’s networks as well as the neutron nodes that are involved in different ailments such as Parkinson’s, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more. We’re also able to narrow down the neutrons responsible for certain behaviors, emotions, and thought patterns.
Deep brain stimulation, or DBS for short, would use precision timed electric pulses in specific regions of the brain in order to help it function better. An electrode would be inserted deep into the brain surgically and then controlled by a device inserted into the collarbone. Once both are fitted into place, doctors can tailor the pulses via the collarbone device to the frequency that they believe will fix the malfunctioning circuit. Utilizing these electrodes in order to deliver electrical currents around and in small areas of brain cells would modulate their activity or “turn them on” if they’re not functioning.
“If we can modify the circuit, then we can certainly modify the behavior,” scientists have noted.
Hope on the horizon for depression
If you’re one of the 300 million people worldwide that suffer from depression, then this new research could spell relief for you. Imagine a world where your depression, anxiety, and even physical illnesses like tremors could be fixed with an implant in your brain. Sounds like paradise right? We think so too! The implant that’s currently being studied would fix circuits within your brain that have aren’t properly functioning.
And this couldn’t come at a better time. For too long mental illnesses have been stigmatized and treated with less importance than physical illness. Many who suffer from some form of mental illness or another often argue, “just because my disease is invisible doesn’t make it any less important. If you have the flu, nobody would blame you for not going to work and seeking treatment, right? Then is my depression dismissed? Why do people snub their noses at me for seeking help?”
DBS not only brings new hope to those who haven’t found consistent or permanent relief from therapy and medication, but also helps to relieve the stigma that’s been attached to mental illness for so long. It promises to bring new insights into the matter and to bring ailments like depression and anxiety to the forefront. “They won’t be hidden, overlooked, or treated as unimportant compared to physical ailments anymore,” scientists promise. And honestly, we’re on board. If DBS can save even just one life, it’s worth it. After all, this might have saved Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Chester Bennington, or any number of those who turned to suicide as the answer.
In addition to dealing with the stigma, deep brain stimulation would also provide more consistent, permanent relief. As we mentioned before, not all depression medications are created equal. And just because your medication works for now, doesn’t mean that it will work forever. This is why doctors feel it’s imperative for sufferers to also seek psychotherapy; to learn coping mechanisms that will help when the medication isn’t. However, it’s easy for a person to relapse.
With an implant within the brain, your doctor would only need to make minor adjustments in order to get you back on the right path. This is much easier and better than having to start all over from square one (finding new coping mechanisms, medication, etc.) and can mean the difference between life and death. However, this isn’t to say that therapy and medication won’t have their place. This will be another powerful tool in the bag to help those struggling.
Current research and findings
At the moment, DBS is only being used to treat a number of conditions such as dystonia, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, as well as a type of epilepsy that has been treatment-resistant up until now. Now, scientists are hopeful that deep brain stimulation can expand its boundaries and help more people in need of its services. And research has thus far been promising.
Currently, the FDA has only approved DBS for the ailments above, but many scientists are conducting experiments using the technology in hopes of treating more conditions. “We hope that through our experiments and trials that we will show the world that DBS can help a large number of people live more satisfying, fulfilling and happier lives,” scientists say.
The results of the clinical studies are mixed so far. Some patients have claimed to have been completely transformed by the process. Others say that they don’t feel any different at all. And for some, their ailments get worse. Despite the number of those who either didn’t feel any different or got worse, the results are promising according to scientists. “The fact that it’s worked on some means that there’s potential. We continue to work with the technology and alter it so that it will work for everyone. We’re confident that we can do just that,” says many of the scientists.
Patients are also awake when the implant is inserted. Since they’re awake during the process, but under local anesthesia, they’re able to help the neurosurgeon accurately plant and alter the device so that it works best for them. Of course, more fine-tuning can be done after the surgery concludes since the device can be altered externally. “This means that we can continue to tune and alter how the device works for the patient long after they leave our facilities. This also means that they don’t have to come back for repeat surgeries if it isn’t living up to their standards. Simply pop in for a visit, tell us your problems, and we can alter it as necessary.”
How does DBS compare to medication?
One of the biggest things that people want to know regarding the technology is how it compares to medication. Of course, we already touched base on this subject a loosely, but we wanted to go more in depth. And for those wondering, no you would not need to take medication alongside the implant. The implant would function on its own.
Antidepressant drugs are like throwing water on your face when you’re thirsty or putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. Sure, you’re helping in a way, but it’s not fixing the problem. Remember the leaky pipe? DPS would work like drinking a glass of water when you’re thirsty, getting stitches for the wound, or actually fixing the pipe.
In other words, it’s a more effective tool and it actually fixes the problem. The fact that it can be turned on and off is also a plus. Since it’s able to adjusted on the fly, it’s a flexible tool that’s great for precisely altering the mood for the better. “It isn’t like antidepressants where you have to wait several weeks just to see results. And if you’re having an off day where even your medication, therapy, and coping mechanisms can’t seem to fix the problem, you’re pretty much out of luck. With the implant, you can swing by your doctor’s office and we can adjust it for you for immediate relief,” neuroscientists say.
Of course this also brings up the question of when do we implement the device? Is it a last resort after medication has failed? Do we put it in right away after the diagnosis? For neuroscientists, this is currently the biggest question that needs to be answered. “We certainly don’t want to jump the gun so to speak, but we also don’t want to wait too long either. For example, we definitely don’t want to wait until the person is completely miserable and frustrated with life years down the road when we could have done something early on. But finding the right time is crucial and something we’re still working on.”
Issues of ethics
Despite the potential of the device and the good it could do, many are questioning its ethics. “Something that has the potential to powerfully and instantly change moods is concerning,” many say. “Should we really be changing our emotions and thought patterns at will? What are the repercussions of doing this?” Of course, it’s impossible to say what the repercussions of all of this could be.
However for those with neurobiological issues, being able to change your thought pattern and mood at will could be the difference between life and death. “Suicide is often a quick decision; not very many people plan it so to speak. It’s sort of a ‘I’m done with this, let’s do it,’ decision that’s made in haste. If we could alter our thought patterns in an instant, then perhaps these people could alter those suicidal thoughts and turn them into something more productive. This could save lives,” others argue.
A lot of people are also worried that DBS will be used for the wrong reasons. “If I don’t like an aspect of my or my kid’s personality, DBS would allow me to alter it. Let’s say I want to be more outgoing, I could hop by the doctor’s office and leave as a very outgoing person. This is a dangerous path to get started on. We shouldn’t be playing God or altering ourselves like that,” are the concerns that many share in regards to deep brain stimulation.
Others fear that this technology might be used within the U.S. military. “Are we going to start brain implants mind control our soldiers too? Are we going to manipulate their emotions and thought patterns and make them better killing machines?”
Of course there’s always the potential to use something in a negative, toxic manner. But should we really let fears like that get in the way or something that could provide relief to so many people and save lives? We’re sure that there will be ethical limitations placed upon the technology and that it will be limited in ways to protect the general public.
What are your thoughts?
Do you think that this technology could be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that so many have been desperately looking for? Do you think that once it’s ready to released to the general public that it’ll be 100% effective or that there will still be a portion of people who won’t benefits of brain implants? We also want to know whether or not you’d consider getting the implant. If you have depression or another neurobiological issue, is this something that you could see working for you? Would you try it? Do you see any ethical, moral or risks of brain implants issues with the device? Let us know in the comment section below!