Sunday, April 25, 2010

A pacemaker for your brain?

Deep brain stimulation (DBS), is a process in which an electrode emits small pulses of electricity in the brain. This treatment has been used for managing Parkinson's disease symptoms, like tremors and paralysis. Researchers are now harnessing the procedure to treat people with severe depression who don't respond to behavioral therapy or medicine.

For the procedure, an MRI is used to identify target areas that may be causing the disorders. Then two nickel-sized holes are cut into both sides of the skull. Electrodes are implanted in the same location in each brain hemisphere, these electrodes are connected to a pacemaker that is surgically implanted beneath the collarbone. A remote control adjusts the intensity of electricity that the electrodes emit.

60 percent of the 60 people that have received DBS for treatment-resistant mood disorders have seen a striking improvement in their symptoms. In the initial trial, six people with major depressive disorder received DBS. Researches administered monthly depression scales, after six months, four of the six showed significantly fewer depressive symptoms.

As I read the article I wondered how they can know that DBS is really helping people, or if it is just the placebo effect. I was relieved to read that the researchers secretly switched off the electrodes in the best-responding patient. After about a month the patient began feeling depressed again, and when the researchers switched it back on, he began to feel better after a period of six weeks. Thus proving that it can't be just the placebo effect.

I also wonder what happens with the remote control, do the doctors keep it until the end of the patients life? Do the patients keep it and begin to regulate the electricity themselves? It seems risky to have a small remote control be responsible for the well-being of a person. The article didn't expand upon the subject of the remote control, which may have been helpful.

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