Hacking the brain and switching off depression

I heard an incredible story on NPR today, during the TED hour, that has me reeling. I’m still thinking about it and am stirred deeply by it.

Lighting enlightenment

Switching on the brain

Treating movement and cognitive functioning with deep brain stimulation

The particular interview I’m talking about was with neurosurgeon Andres Lozano, and his teams deep brain stimulation with electrode implants. (You can see the video and the transcript by clicking here.) They were able to literally switch off (with a remote) tremors in Parkinson’s patients. They were also able to switch off depression for some sufferers.

 

Switch…it…off.

 

The logical outcome of this was that they switched on motivation.

 

Mischievous neurons

‘Telling a neuron, “Now that’s enough.'”

This part of the interview hit me so hard that I got misty. What an amazing experience it would be:

So the first thing we did was we compared, what’s different in the brain of someone with depression and someone who’s normal? And what we did was PET scans to look at the blood flow of the brain and what we noticed is that in patients with depression, compared to normals, areas of the brain are shut down. Those are the areas involved in motivation and drive and decision-making, and indeed, if you’re severely depressed, as these patients were, those are impaired. You lack motivation and drive. The other thing we discovered was an area that was overactive – area 25. And area 25 is the sadness center of the brain.

If I make any of you sad, for example, if I make you remember the last time you saw your parent before they died or a friend before they died, this area of the brain lights up. It is the sadness center of the brain. And so patients with depression have hyperactivity, the area of the brain for sadness is on red-hot. The thermostat is set at a hundred degrees. And the other areas of the brain involved in drive and motivation are shutdown.

So on the basis of those observations, we embarked on a study to implant electrodes in area 25 and turn on the electricity to see whether we could turn down the activity in this area to see whether this would have some benefit in people with so-called treatment resistant depression.

…So many of the patients will say that they have this black cloud over them or they have this tremendous weight – this pressure on their chest. And within – turning this on, within two or three seconds, that sensation disappears in about two-thirds of the patients.

…They say, this burden is lifting. I feel a tremendous relief. And then they start looking around, then they start becoming more engaged. These are people who often do not leave the house, who sit in a chair all day, and all of a sudden, they’ll say, I feel like doing some housekeeping. Or a man will say I feel like going into my garage and, you know, fixing the car. A tremendous sort of call to action to do things that they were not able to do for many weeks and months. And all of this occurs within 10 or 15 seconds of turning on the stimulator.

–Andres Lozano

Hacking depression

I can’t imagine this kind of turnaround…Or maybe I can.

The most amazing, persistent thought to me is that of the possibility. To know that it is a thing which can be targeted this way at all is very hopeful. Of course, we think in our minds and we say with our lips that depression can be treated with willpower and changing of habits. It’s hard of course, but it is true and has been effectively proven. But the sinister power of deep depression is its ability to exploit the fear within the sufferer that it is a thing which cannot be moved. It is you. It just is who you are, and you cannot escape it.

We’ll never to be able to make all our problems go away by flipping a switch. But this is an amazing reminder that depression and other mood disorders don’t just have to be the way it is; that they are, in fact, abnormal; and that they are, in fact, real. There is a power that comes with realizing something, and giving it a name.

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Comments

  1. Matt! I have so many thoughts in my brain right now. Have you watched this TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drv3BP0Fdi8?? I was struck by the quote you cited that said, “in patients with depression, compared to normals”… Normals?? What is “normal”?!? When you see me, do I seem “normal” to you? I’ve had clinical depression for the past 21 years, and it has such a stigma that very few of the people in my life even know this about me. You wrote, “But this is an amazing reminder that depression and other mood disorders don’t just have to be the way it is; that they are, in fact, abnormal”. With all due respect, Matt, [and I really mean that!], I don’t have a “mood disorder”, and it IS, in point of fact, exceedingly common… perhaps even “normal”.

    Is diabetes “normal”? It’s a flaw in one’s body chemistry. It’s a chemical imbalance in one’s body that needs pharmaceutical intervention. That’s precisely what true depression is. My depression is caused by neurotransmitters in my brain that don’t process seratonin appropriately. It’s not my “mood”. It’s the chemical make-up of my brain, and it totally sucks.

    You wrote, “we think in our minds and we say with our lips that depression can be treated with willpower and changing of habits. It’s hard of course, but it is true and has been effectively proven”. I challenge you on this point. In my experience it is NOT something that can be treated with “willpower”. You have no idea of the struggles I’ve been through, and of how very much I wish… OMG, HOW I WISH… I could treat it with “willpower”. But just as a diabetic cannot use willpower to make their body chemistry work properly, I cannot use willpower to correct the body chemistry that affects my brain’s seratonin re-uptake abilities.

    So, that’s my 2 cents, FWIW. 🙂

  2. And another FWIW comment, Matt: I love that we live in a world in which I can speak my mind, and you can speak yours, and our differences don’t have to lead to confrontation. I love this kind of discourse. 🙂

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