Deep Brain Stimulation Shows Promise for Those With Treatment-Resistant Depression

New research offers hope.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
February 27, 2020

As someone living with treatment-resistant depression, I know how frustrating it can be to do everything right — getting therapy, trying medications, having a strong support system — but not see good results. And I’m not alone: Approximately one-third of people with depression don’t find an effective treatment. That’s why new research out of the University of Calgary is so encouraging: After experimenting with two types of deep brain stimulation (DBS) — short pulse and long pulse — researchers found that both methods were safe and effective in reducing depressive symptoms.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, involved a project that required participants to volunteer — something that is easier said than done. “It can be very difficult to find study participants for research like this,” Rajamannar Ramasubbu, M.D., a professor in the university’s departments of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, said in a statement. “The procedure is invasive, so many clinicians are reluctant to recommend it. It requires implanting an electrode into the brain that is connected to a pulse generator that is implanted under the clavicle into the chest.”

Basically, DBS works in a similar way to how pacemakers operate in the heart: by delivering electrical impulses to help regulate a function of the body — in this case, helping brain cells communicate more efficiently with each other.

“Depression is caused by abnormalities in the neural circuit responsible for emotional regulation,” Ramasubbu said in the statement. “The region of the brain we target (subcallosal cingulate) is the junction of the limbic and frontal regions. Stimulating this area helps to keep a balance between these two unique systems.”

The participants in the study — who ranged in age from 20 to 70 — were divided into two groups: one that received short pulse stimulation, while the other received long pulse width stimulation. After six months, participants who didn’t initially respond to their assigned DBS method received the other type of treatment. The researchers used a depression scale to measure the changes in the participants’ symptoms. 

Ultimately, both methods worked — and were safe — for some of the participants. Specifically, 50 percent responded to the stimulation with 50 percent reduction in symptoms — 30 percent of which experienced complete improvement in their symptoms. The younger participants had more success with DBS than the older people in the study.

Beth McKay, one of the study participants, who benefited from the procedure, said in the statement: “Basically I was nearly dead and now I’m mostly alive. I’m still figuring out what life feels like, because it feels so different and so much better than before the implant.” 

The authors of the study note that more research is needed to determine exactly which type of patients with treatment-resistant depression would benefit most from DBS, but for now, the results are promising for those of us who haven’t found sustained relief from the disorder.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.


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This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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