Depression is a condition that affects at least 4% of the world population according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO). That is why different groups of researchers are looking for a treatment or a cure, whether through genetics, drugs or therapy.
However now, almost by chance, a group of German researchers has found that there is a new method to treat it: deep brain stimulation (DBS), a therapy that, as the name implies, electrically stimulates the brain through deeply implanted electrodes.
Discovered by chance
According to the researchers published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, four people who were taking a DBS therapy had unexpected relapses of depression (a disease they had kept at bay for 4 years). However, they recovered in approximately 12 hours when it was discovered that the batteries that operated their implants had been depleted.
Another person, who had been using DBS for two and a half years, also relapsed after deciding that he no longer needed it and shut down the system deliberately. It recovered quickly after reactivating it. These results counteract the suspicion that the benefits of DBS for depression are simply placebo effects.
“These cases convey a very strong message against it being a placebo effect,” says Thomas Schlaepfer, who has treated these and others at the Medical Center of the University of Freiburg in Germany.
DBS therapy has been used extensively and successfully to treat people with Parkinson’s, however, there have always been doubts about its effectiveness in treating severe depression. “There has been a great stigma in the use of DBS for depression, which is very much a placebo effect,” says Albert Fenoy, who also treats depression with DBS at the University of Texas at Houston.
“Showing a rapid relapse into depression after disabling the stimulation that previously improved his mood is a great proof that this is not due to a placebo effect,” he adds.
However, two trials in 2015 had shown disappointing results. Faced with that, Schlaepfer said the treatment in those cases had been too short to have an impact. Now he hopes that the results of his team will dispel some of the doubts and rekindle the efforts to prove the DBS as a method to treat depression.
For example, his own team plans to conduct a follow-up trial on 60 people with depression who show sustained relief for at least six months while using DBS. In the next six months, your doctors at some point, and with the prior consent of all patients, will turn off the device to see if they relapse. Only physicians, not patients or independent evaluators of the depressive state, will know that it has been turned off to avoid any placebo effect.
DBS has also been used in the past to improve memory, and the first tests showed promising results.