Swapna Krishna

Mar 14th 2022

Brain Implants Could Help Treat — and Possibly Cure — Severe Depression


Depression is a serious, and unfortunately quite common, health condition. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it affects one in 15 adults every year, while one in six people will experience depression sometime during their life. That’s a lot of people!

It’s not always clear what causes depression — it can be an imbalance in brain chemistry or a byproduct of personality, environmental factors, or genetics. The good news, though, is there are many treatment options, from medication to psychotherapy to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). And now, there may be a new treatment on the horizon: brain implants.

Researchers have been experimenting with brain implants to treat depression, and the results have been surprising. While they may not be widely available anytime soon, it bodes well for the future of treating this insidious disease. One day it could even be a depression cure.

Why Are Brain Implants Effective as a Depression Cure?

Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, is an effective treatment for severe depression cases, but it’s not a depression cure. While it’s more conventionally known as shock therapy, it’s very different from the historical practice. It’s done under general anesthesia, according to The Mayo Clinic, and involves passing electrical currents to parts of the brain. The end goal is to trigger a seizure which will alter brain chemistry. While there’s no guarantee it will work, it can have an effect on the most serious depression cases that don’t respond to other treatments.

Brain implants work similarly. In a paper published in Nature Medicine, scientists detail how they treated an individual with major depressive disorder who didn’t respond to any other treatment, including ECT. A team at the University of California, San Francisco implanted a device called NeuroPace RNS, originally approved for epilepsy treatment, into the right hemisphere of the patient’s brain, and thanks to a wire, it was able to monitor the patient’s amygdala for signs of depression and provide electric stimulation to counter the effects.

What Does a Brain Implant Look For?

Before implanting the NeuroPace RNS, researchers studied the patient’s brain closely. They engaged in “stimulus-response mapping,” according to the study, which monitored the effects of stimulating different parts of the brain. As a result, scientists were able to discover treatment locations to stimulate in order to counter the effects of the patient’s deep depression. As a Scientific American article notes, the team found that by activating an area of the patient’s brain in the ventral striatum, they were able to produce feelings of glee and happiness.

But it wasn’t enough to know which area to stimulate in order to provide treatment. Scientists also needed to know when to administer this treatment. In order to do that, they mapped the patient’s brain and found that gamma oscillations in the amygdala were a reliable indicator of when the patient’s depression symptoms were about to spike.

What Does a Brain Implant Do to Fight Depression?

Thanks to the wire placed into the patient’s amygdala, the implant knew exactly when to administer treatment. It did so in six-second bursts, stimulating the area of the ventral striatum that increased the patient’s happiness until the gamma oscillations decreased.

Once that happened, treatment was deemed effective and the implant was turned off until the next time gamma oscillations triggered another wave. It provided the patient gentle stimulation as needed throughout the day. According to a University of California San Francisco study, the patient reported that her depression symptoms have virtually disappeared over the months she’s been using the implant.

What’s Next for Brain Implants and Depression?

It’s important to note that this is just a study of one person, so it’s definitely too early to label this brain implant a depression cure. But it’s incredibly promising. The next step for scientists is to work with the patient to spend six weeks off the device and six weeks with it turned on in order to evaluate whether the disappearance of symptoms could be a placebo effect.

This brain implant has a long way to go before it’s available for wider use. But it’s certainly an interesting start, and it might offer people with major depressive disorder a real chance at living a life free from depression symptoms.

Are you interested in science and innovation? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.