Can Deep Brain Stimulation Help Treat Psychiatric Disorders?

By Beth Leipholtz 04/02/19

Scientists have been experimenting with whether deep brain stimulation could help those with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Image: 
scientist explaining deep brain stimulation to a colleague

Certain neurological and psychiatric disorders may be rooted in dysfunctional circuits in the brain—and some believe that deep brain stimulation (DBS) may be one way of treating such disorders. 

The idea, according to NPR, is that it may be possible to pinpoint such circuits and manipulate them to be functional by sending electric pulses to exact regions in the brain. These regions are reached by placing an electrode in the brain, which is then controlled with an implanted device, usually in the collarbone region. Once placed, the frequency of the electric pulses can be controlled by doctors. 

“Modify the circuit, and you can modify the behavior,” James Giordano, neuroethicist and chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at Georgetown University Medical Center, tells NPR. “The goal is to use DBS to modify the circuits in such a way as to improve symptoms in a very specific and precise way.”

While this method has potential to treat a number of conditions, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved the treatment for a select few, including people with movement disorders (e.g. Parkinson’s disease) and epilepsy that does not respond to other treatment methods.  

According to NPR, scientists worldwide have been experimenting with whether deep brain stimulation could help those with diagnoses such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Scientists have also tried to use DBS to treat drug cravings

However, clinical study results haven’t been clear-cut—as some patients claim DBS has helped, while others have seen no improvement or felt worse. 

According to Giordano, DBS differs from antidepressants because it can be more fine-tuned and tailored to each individual. 

“A drug like Prozac or antidepressant drugs is basically like throwing water on your face to get a drink of water,” he told NPR. “Using something like deep brain stimulation is like putting a drop of water on your tongue. We can increase the specificity and precision... and, in many ways, the precision and specificity of deep brain stimulation makes it a more effective tool.”

When it comes to placing a device in the brain, Giordano says there are of course the normal risks of neurosurgery, such as infection. Though rare, he adds, there are also some risks specific to the procedure. 

“By stimulating Area X, it's possible that we could get a spillover effect that modulates other things ancillary to that, like personality, temperament, character, personal preferences,” he explained. “There have been case reports and anecdotal reports of things like that happening, but they're rare.”

As with any new procedure and technology, Giordano acknowledges that learning the ins and outs of deep brain stimulation won’t always be smooth sailing. However, he says, the capabilities of deep brain stimulation are worth exploring. 

“Mistakes will get made” he said.

“Hopefully, we'll be bright enough to correct them and recognize them when they occur not only in terms of the technological and scientific mistakes but ethical, moral, legal mistakes. In many ways, this represents something of a brave new world of capability. And I think that we have to be very, very sentinel to what the potential of this could yield.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.

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