A man in a white suit is strapped to a chair. Electrodes are adhered to his temples, his forehead, and all over his scalp. He has nowhere to go, nor does he have the ability to go. A current runs through the wires, and there is a scream of agony. This is what most people imagine when they see the words “electroshock therapy.” Now termed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), this method of treatment has gotten a bad reputation over the years. We cringe in horror at the conversion therapy that claimed to “treat” homosexuality, and we were shocked ourselves when watching Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest receive electroshock therapy in the “shock shop”. However, the same principles that have developed such nightmarish therapies may form the basis of a new and promising treatment for depression and other mental illnesses.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been around since the 1980s as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain. It is likened to a pacemaker for the brain, in which two electrodes are inserted deep into the brain in order to modulate electrical pulses to a specific region. While it is already known that DBS is able to improve movement disorders such as Parkinson’s, current research is now investigating whether DBS can stabilize emotions and thoughts. Although it is not known how exactly depression works, scientists believe that it is a systems-level disorder that affects various regions of the brain and circuitry. The first experiment conducted on the effect that DBS has on depression occurred back in 2003 under the belief that DBS had the capacity to modulate pathological brain circuits in depression. Results from the original experiment showed that four out of six patients experienced major reductions in their depression symptoms, such as feelings of hopelessness and restlessness, over a period of one year. While findings were inconclusive due to the small sample size, the study became a foundation of DBS research and is the basis of a current study conducted in Toronto, Canada involving 58 patients suffering from depression.
Image source: Craig F. Walker
With this new wealth of data, DBS may eventually develop into a new method of treatment for depression and cease to be something of a last resort. It may not be long before the stigma behind ECT is a shock from the past.