Doctors Put Woman In Deep Coma To Treat Her Depression And It Worked

By Kelly Burch 04/24/19

The woman said she noticed a significant difference after the second treatment.

doctor checking on woman in deep coma for depression treatment

People suffering from severe depression oftentimes don’t feel like they care if they live or die. That’s the state that Heather B. Armstrong was in when she agreed to participate in an experimental depression treatment that induced a deep coma to try to reset the brain and treat her depression. 

“If it means I don’t have to feel this way through the rest of my life, let’s maybe do it?” Armstrong said of the treatment in an interview with The New York Post

The treatment mimics brain death by inducing a deep coma for 15 minutes at a time over 10 sessions. This “burst suppression” essentially shuts down the brain’s neurological communications before starting them back up, resetting neurological functions that may contribute to symptoms of depression. Doctors who help anesthetize patients call the deep sedations “the abyss.”

Armstrong wrote about her experience in a new book, The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live.

“Quieting is a polite way of saying ‘taking down to zero,’” Armstrong writes. 

Although the thought of the treatment was terrifying—doctors used the anesthetic propofol to sedate Armstrong and the opioid fentanyl to help her cope with headaches induced by the process—Armstrong quickly saw results

“It was after the second treatment when I suddenly realized, ‘Oh, I showered without even thinking about it!’ After the third treatment… I started doing my hair and wearing cleaner clothes,” she said.

Halfway through the treatment cycle, “I was sitting outside watching my kids playing, and I actually felt happy,” she said. 

Armstrong wasn’t alone in her success. She was one of 10 people who took part in a study run by the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute. Of those, six people experienced significant relief from their depression symptoms.

Doctors believe the treatment works in a similar way to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) by targeting the brain’s neural networks. However, the treatment appears to avoid common complications of ECT, including memory loss. 

Researcher Dr. Brian J. Mickey said in the afterword of Armstrong’s book. “This study… could be the beginning of something new, but the true benefits of Propofol for treatment-resistant depression remain unknown. Much work still needs to be done.”

It has now been two years since Armstrong underwent the treatments, and she says that her depression symptoms have stayed at bay. By undergoing brain death again and again, she has rediscovered life. 

“I’m better than ever,” she said. 

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