Scientists Use Brain Control to Treat Depression

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may become a thing of the past when researchers can fine-tune a new technique called deep brain stimulation. Depression and other mental conditions, such as Parkinson's, may be treated by pinpointing the exact neuron responsible for the ailment. Besides repair, the technology could also likely take things a step further in tomorrow's brave new world, and enhance cognitive abilities such as memory and alertness.

Remote-control ratRemote-control ratA recent issue of New Scientist contains an update of the frontiers of brain control, a field being pioneered by a number of neurobiologists and psychiatrists around the world. The advances during the past few years have been significant, and researchers predict that they will be able to fine-tune their methods in the relatively near future with upcoming breakthroughs.

Among the innovations are flies that can be "remote-controlled" and worms that appear to dance, all by the stimulation of certain neurons with a tiny flash of light. Scientists have discovered how to hit on certain neurons that control specific muscles, and how light can turn these neurons on or off.

Scientists also know about key areas in the brain that control moods and reflexes, which could allow treatment of depression, Parkinson's, dystonia and Tourette's. Unlike earlier attempts at brain control, such as ECT, the deep brain stimulation technique has the potential to excite single neurons. This precision would likely eliminate the side effects of ECT, which are thought to be caused by stimulation of surrounding neurons. Some of these infamous side effects include causing patients to weep or laugh uncontrollably, or to lose their memories.

In flies, cockroaches, and worms, deep brain stimulation requires the desired neurons to be prepared by injecting a gene that makes the neurons react to certain wavelengths of light that they wouldn't otherwise react to. This technique, known as gene therapy, is still in its early stages, although there have been many positive test results.

Currently, some research hospitals in the US, such as the Mayo Clinic , have been offering patients with depression the option to undergo a type of deep brain stimulation. However, the technique is currently only available through clinical trials, and not FDA-approved for depression. Also, the current method is still not as precise as possible, and so side effects persist. Researchers hope that one day, a more exact method will be available.

Lisa Zyga
Science Blogger