Can Zapping Our Brains Really Cure Depression?

The brain is an electrical organ. Everything that goes there is a result of zip milivillates from one neuron to another, especially in the pattern. It increases those tantalizing possibility should we ever decode those patterns, from Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia – or even to optimize desirable properties such as intelligence and flexibility, to treat neurological dysfunction. Can adjust them electrically.

Of course, the brain is so complex, and so difficult to use, that it is much easier to visualize than it is to do. A pair of studies published in January in the journal Nature Medicine, however, show that electrical stimulation can Know obsessive-compulsive urge And symptoms of depression with surprising speed and accuracy. Mapping participants’ brain activity when they experienced certain sensations allowed the researchers to personalize the stimuli and modify moods and habits, which is possible through therapy or medication. The results also showed that the symptoms we classify as a disorder – depression, for example – may involve electrical processes unique to each individual.

In the first study, a team from the University of California, San Francisco, surgically implanted the brain of a woman whose severe depression was proven resistant to other treatments. For 10 days, they delivered pulses through electrodes to different areas of the brain at different frequencies and recorded the patient’s depression, anxiety, and energy levels on an iPad. The effect of some pulses was significant and granular. “Within a minute, she says, ‘I think I’m reading a good book,” Catherine W. Says Skongos, a psychiatrist and lead author of the study. The patient described the effect of another pulse as “low cobwebs and cotton”.

Researchers also recorded which types of unrelated brain activity coincided with periods of low mood or energy. The objective was to use responses that guide the location of another set of electrodes known as deep-brain stimulation – a technique that produces a coherent, high-frequency electric pulse. Tapping with can restore neurons to lost function. To date, it has been most commonly employed to treat movement related disorders, such as Parkinson’s. It also showed promise for depression. “But because depression presents differently in different people, it involves many neural circuits,” Scangos says. He and his colleagues wondered if a “more personal approach” could make treatment more effective. Based on their mapping of the patient’s brain activity, they programmed the electrode to detect its depressed states and provide stimulation in response, similar to the way a pacemaker works on the heart. This experimental treatment will continue for a long time as the patient goes about his daily life.

Deep-brain stimulation is very aggressive except in extreme circumstances. But in another study, researchers used a nonwave technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation to deliver electrical pulses through electrodes placed on participants’ skulls. The goal was to try to curb obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Previous studies have suggested that the orbital frontal cortex, a region in the brain’s reward network, may play a role in reinforcing such behaviors, regarding them as beneficial. The researchers therefore attached electrodes to 64 volunteers and recorded the frequency in hertz at which their orbital frontal cortex was fired when they won a monetary reward in a game.

Crucially, it was noted, the frequency varies slightly by person. Using that individual frequency, the researchers next stimulated each participant in the same area for 30 minutes for five days in a row. By doing this, they found that obsessive-compulsive behavior in volunteers decreased by an average of about 30 percent over the following three months. (None of the volunteers had an obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosis. However, all reported varying degrees of repetitive tendency, and those whose symptoms were most acute were most relieved.) The researchers Hypothesized that stimulation helped the orbital frontal cortex. Maintain its optimal rhythm, thereby improving its coordination with other areas in the reward network.

The findings confirmed the idea that targeting individual brain stimuli requires not only determining the correct region, but also the correct rhythm, upon which to do so. “The neural code – it’s frequency-specific,” says Robert MG Reinhart, author of a study and director of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston University. “The channel of information-processing in the brain is just like a channel that you can see on the radio.” The study also reported that compulsivity-like symptoms exist on a spectrum. Currently, a person for whom those symptoms are troubling, but not disabled may not seek treatment, especially if it comes with side effects, as drugs often do. Brain stimulation, however, can one day cure all kinds of conditions, which we now accurately target with drugs, says Reinhart. “If you want to have a future, you can imagine someone napping themselves to go on a trans-Atlantic flight. What people use coffee for today.”

Won’t be a psychiatrist To describe the stimulation of the brain to the public anytime soon. But by identifying neural circuits that give rise to particular symptoms, and showing that changes in firing time can alter those symptoms, they present new ways of thinking about what psychiatric disorders are. “There is still a lot of stigma around depression that a lot of patients feel,” Skongos says. The subject of his study was no exception: “The fact that there was such an immediate reaction when we aroused him, felt like this is not something I’m doing wrong; This is something in my mind that can be addressed. “

Giving a collection of symptoms a diagnostic label such as “depression” is useful because it helps doctors more efficiently find a successful treatment, currently a long process of trial and error. “The million-dollar question is how to give the best treatment to the patient and avoid treatment that won’t work”, says Helen Mayberg, a neurologist and director of the Nash Family Center for Advanced Circuit Therapeutics at the Icon School. Medicine at Mount Sinai; He was the co-author of a commentary on two studies. As neuroscientists map the brain activity of more and more patients, they are getting closer to being able to offer a battery of tests that show, Scangos says, “You have this type of depression, you use this drug Will answer you best. ”

Finally, if we can directly address those symptoms, we can get rid of the clinical categories altogether, with Alvaro Pascual-Leone, medical director of the Walk Center for Memory Health at Hebrew Seniorlife and Neurology at Harvard Medical School Professor says. Instead of applying a default label of depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, Pascual-Leone says, doctors may instead ask, “What are the dysfunctional symptoms that this person presents?” And then treat it specifically.

For now, these studies are additional evidence for everyone that “our brains are plastic,” says Shrey Grover, a graduate student and co-author of the study at Boston University. “And we can republish the brain in different ways.” They include psychiatry and pharmacology. As we learn our neural activity also changes; As we age we change. This means that we can improve how our minds work at any point of our lives, even without advanced technology.

But the plasticity of the brain makes it all the more surprising that some psychological states can be difficult to overcome. Research into individual brain stimulation also considers the larger question of whether moods or habits that are benign or circumstantial in some people – paying careful attention to a person’s death as a tax, telling or feeling deep sadness – are chronic and debilitating. Are the ones. other. “There’s nothing that goes right on reason,” Reinhart says. “It’s like water is running in the sink, and you can turn off the floor, but nobody has to turn off the faucet.”


Kim Tingley is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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