Can Nerve Stimulation Help Depression?

By Kelly Burch 08/23/18

Researchers discovered that using vagus nerve stimulators to treat depression changed patients' quality of life.

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A new study has shown that nerve stimulation can improve quality of life for depression patients, even if their symptoms aren’t totally alleviated. 

"When evaluating patients with treatment-resistant depression, we need to focus more on their overall well-being," lead author Charles R. Conway, MD, a Washington University professor of psychiatry, told Science Daily. "A lot of patients are on as many as three, four or five antidepressant medications, and they are just barely getting by. But when you add a vagus nerve stimulator, it really can make a big difference in people's everyday lives.”

For the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers followed about 600 patients who were being treated for depression. Some continued “treatment as usual,” which could include medication, electro-convulsive therapy, talk therapy or a combination of these.

The researchers compared these individuals with 328 people who continued with their usual treatment, but were also given vagus nerve stimulators, which are implanted in the neck or chest and deliver regular, mild pulses of electricity to the brain. 

Comparing 14 measurements including relationships, physical health and ability to work, researchers found that people with the stimulators had a better quality of life. 

"On about 10 of the 14 measures, those with vagus nerve stimulators did better," Conway said. "For a person to be considered to have responded to a depression therapy, he or she needs to experience a 50% percent decline in his or her standard depression score. But we noticed, anecdotally, that some patients with stimulators reported they were feeling much better even though their scores were only dropping 34 to 40%.”

This suggests that the nerve stimulation can improve life for people with depression, even if it doesn’t put the depression into remission. Study participant Charles Donovan was hospitalized for depression multiple times and found treatments ineffective until he got a vagus nerve stimulator. 

"Before the stimulator, I never wanted to leave my home," he said. "It was stressful to go to the grocery store. I couldn't concentrate to sit and watch a movie with friends. But after I got the stimulator, my concentration gradually returned. I could do things like read a book, read the newspaper, watch a show on television. Those things improved my quality of life.”

Conway said that stimulating the vagus nerve might enable people to concentrate better, which makes their day-to-day lives better.

"It improves alertness, and that can reduce anxiety," he said. "And when a person feels more alert and more energetic and has a better capacity to carry out a daily routine, anxiety and depression levels decline."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.