march of the wireheads

Pacemaker 'cure' for depression

Scientists in Toronto studied six patients who had suffered years of untreatable clinical depression. Four women and two men had electrodes planted deep into their brain to stimulate one of the areas involved in mood control.

Each underwent local anaesthetic before doctors drilled two small holes in their skulls. Then, using magnetic resonance imaging to guide them, doctors inserted two thin electrode wires into the brain area. The other ends of the wires were threaded under the scalp down to the lower neck area.

Next, the patients underwent a general anaesthetic to have a pulse generator implant, the "pacemaker", sewn in under the skin of their chest. The wires were hooked up to this to provide constant brain stimulation.

All six volunteers reported acute effects once the current was switched on. These included a sudden brightening of the room and a "disappearing of the void".

So that's kinda neat, but:

Prior to treatment the patients had failed to respond to conventional therapy such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or psychotherapy.

ECT, it's not just for interrogation any more! Did you know you could taser depression away? "Still depressed?" ZAP! "Still depressed?" ZAP! I wonder if this is before or after the leeches.

Tags: , , , ,

37 Responses:

  1. Hey, ECT works. It's not like in 'Return to Oz' or anything -- the voltages are low, and there are some people that haven't responded well to anything else, but semiregular ECT lets them have some semblance of a normal life.

    Besides, the wire thing that the article talks about is just a more localized version.

    • spider88 says:

      The voltage is high enough to require the patients be injected with a pharmaceutical that paralyzes the muscles so a physical convulsion does not occur.

      It is still done without consent in some institutions. It also causes short term memory loss. Some psychiatrists wonder if they way it treats depression is by making the person forget what they are depressed about.

      The history of ECT is also rather silly - it was observed that epileptics did not get depressed (which is actually quite false) and so it was thought that perhaps convulsions prevented depression.

      Essentially, it's like a force-quit/reboot on the brain. Changes not saved will be lost. But hey - often it works, too.

      • injector says:

        I knew a kid that received regular ECT. He never seemed super depressed to me, just kind of flat. But one Monday after spending the weekend at his dad's house he was really cheery. Going on about everything he had done during his visit. Exciting things like helping his dad mow the lawn. I was like, "oh wow, that sounds fun..." But I was happy to see him in a good mood for a change. But Monday evenings were ECT time. Back at school on Tuesday we were together with another of our friends who hadn't heard the lawn mowing story. So I asked him to tell it again. He had no idea what I was talking about. Didn't even remember visiting his father.

        Now that made me depressed.

      • lifelike001 says:

        close, it was epilepsy and schizophrenia which were thought to never exist in the same brain - but yeah, that just aint so.

        it has been proven, however, that ECT does work... they just dont know how... exactly the same as all other mental health 'treatments'. *shudder*

        • lifelike001 says:

          sorry, thats not phrased quite correctly, i meant to say ECT sometimes works. not always. and not always without side effects scarier than the initial disease.

          • pavel_lishin says:

            I've seen too many bad movies to go through ECT if someone ever suggested it. I'm one of those people who's afraid to get a penicillin shot, and would rather be sick for a week and take pills. Definitely wouldn't subject myself to electro shock therapy.

            Having wires drilled into my head sounds good, though. Just give me a happy-button to push!

  2. crackmonkey says:

    I want one of these with a remote, a la the heart plugs from Dune.

    Fun at parties, and meetings at work.

  3. jkonrath says:

    This is a lot different than a localized version of ECT. In ECT, they give you a fairly decent jolt to induce a grand mal seizure, which completely shorts out your system for a half-minute or more. With this, they are giving very small amounts of stimulation to specific areas of the brain.

    Either way, I wouldn't be willing to try something like this unless it was like a watch or a USB device, not an invasive implant...

  4. treptoplax says:

    Excellent. How long before I start getting spam advertising this?

  5. jfedor says:

    Wasn't there a book about it some time ago? The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton.

    • jwz says:

      I was thinking of Larry Niven, who did it better, if not first. (And maybe also first, I'm not sure.)

      • rosefox says:

        And I was thinking Bladerunner-style mood dials.

      • omnifarious says:

        From the text of the article, I don't think they use the same part of the brain. They'd better not, or we'll have a bunch of stupified zombies who'll never have any motivation to do anything.

      • pavel_lishin says:

        Heh, great, now the people who previously had a problem with depression will have a problem with being constantly blissed out... oh well, if Niven's right, the problem will solve itself! Just, um, give it a few centuries...

    • coldacid says:

      I was thinking that too.

    • jkonrath says:

      Yeah, but that was epilepsy, not depression. And from what I remember, the implant talked via some kind of wireless gizmo to a centralized computer, which was something like a PDP-11 in the basement of the hospital.

  6. nightrider says:

    ECT, it's not just for interrogation any more! Did you know you could taser depression away? "Still depressed?" ZAP! "Still depressed?" ZAP! I wonder if this is before or after the leeches.

    Thank you. It's the first time I've laughed out loud at my computer in quite a while...

    It's somewhat reminiscent of the Simpsons episode with Dr. Marvin Monroe and his "family shock therapy" treatments.

    Marge: Bart! How could you shock your little sister?!
    Bart: My finger slipped.
    Lisa: {Shocks Bart} So did mine!

    Now, all you need is some way to control the pacemaker-like devices.

  7. j_b says:

    This is just the first step to the HappyCard

  8. Yes, ECT is still used, because it works.


    It's kind of a last resort, so if these folks already did the ECT, and they tried this and it looks to be beneficial, awesome! the pacemaker shows promise in this test. Can you imagine being the person who came up with that idea? "Hey! ECT works, and we know which centers of the brain affect mood...I wonder what a low level current to that part of the brain would do......"

    Still to be seen if any long term effects come of it, though, like long life, or X-Men super powers. If it helps them beat depression, then they are already guaranteed to live longer, because major depression leads to an early grave, as we all know.

  9. lrc says:

    Check out the book "Interface" by Stephen Bury, aka Neal Stephenson

  10. jmaurus says:

    Gotta love the article. Professor Vince Egan, a clinical psychologist at Glasgow Caledonian University, is quoted saying:

    for those who have biological features of depression who do not respond to drugs, who have previously been treated using ECT, then something less drastic or violent or understood has got to be a good thing.

    Yep, all those poor people! Something even less understood will certainly help them more.

    Also, ECT is highly disputed, as it is not at all understood how it works or if it works at all. All effects that are generally observed with ECT-patients can be attributed to the "fire-walk"-effect, i.e. just doing something outrageous to get you to believe something. That would also explain why ECT never seems to produce lasting changes, but has to be repeated in order to uphold the effect. Having a hole drilled in your skull in a highly experimental procedure can also have this effect on you. It's sad, really, that they didn't perform a real test and left the electrodes out of some of the subjects.

    • lifelike001 says:

      it might help. its not commonly acknowledged, but nobody has THAT good an understanding of how all the other treatments work. no really, its shove in the drugs and cross your fingers!!

      • jmaurus says:

        none of the drugs has the same risk of death or brain damage like ECT. ECT basically induces an epileptic seizure, that (today, it wasn't 30 years ago) is being countered by muscle relaxants, while the subject is under constant surveillance. There is no scientific explanation for any connection between epileptic seizure and depression (there are epileptics who are severly depressed) nor depression and electric stimulation of the brain besides case studies, i.e. hand-picked people who got better while treated with ECT under more or less documented conditions. They might have gotten better if you whacked 'em in the forehead with a large trout, but there's no way to find out, as there's no control group.

        That, of course, is due to the fact that it's inherently difficult to establish placebo conditions for an ECT treatment and adequatly explain the absence of typical aftereffects. While I'm really no friend of treating mental "illnesses" with chemicals, at least each and every antidepressant on the market today has shown that it significantly improves the living conditions of patients in double-blind studies. ECT seems to primarily have word-of-mouth propaganda behind it, though I may be wrong, of course, as this is merely a hobby of mine, not my primary field of knowledge.

        • lifelike001 says:

          "each and every antidepressant on the market today has shown that it significantly improves the living conditions of patients in double-blind studies."

          and yet, why do so many of said 'proven' drugs simply not work?

          im on my 15th. the current one i take gives me seizures (oh the irony...) which i have to take an additional drug to control. its other horrific side effect is that it doesnt really work.

          the stigma attached to ECT is considerable, and not unjustified. but for some people, living in utter misery as we do, sometimes we have no other option. im holding out as long as i can because of that very stigma and the fear it produces - but i wont have that choice for long. facing life in this brain is 1000 times scarier than anything ECT could produce. i ALREADY have short term (and long term) memory loss as a result of my illness. i might die anyway because of this illness. anything that can provide me with options for surviving - even untested or risky - is at least another chance i have to somehow fight to stay alive.

          • sleepsheep says:

            For me the finding the will to fight can be the problem. After some of the drugs I'm left without anything left to fight with. Kinda got to shake it off and stumble into the Dr office and say "next!" I keep thinking of "the Bell Jar" and ECT or Vodka. Sounds like a choice. I read about this a long time ago, but I'll try ECT before I let them drill into my head. And Vodka sounds nicer than ECT. I guess it would be different stigma. I made peace with stigma though. I got good at making jokes about being on drugs and seeing the Dr. So when I had to leave work to see the Dr no one even blinked.

            • lifelike001 says:

              heheh im the next step on... havent worked in eight months but before i stopped it was trying to explain irregular absences, bursting into tears in meetings, bleeding on my keyboard, being caught in the toilets punching the tiles... oh the funfun world of incapacitating mental illness. having taken most of the drugs on offer with no appreciable results (and side effects which have gotten me written up in a medical journal) that wires to the head thing doesnt sound so scary LOL!

  11. wfaulk says:

    As previously stated, it is a last-course treatment due to the side effects, which are worse than pretty much any other course of treatment. My wife has been on the verge of ECT treatment for a few years now. Right now, she's still hovering on the fringes of having medications work. But I fear that before too long it'll be the only option left. There are actually a few others. This one, for example, a clumsier version of which we'd heard of before. There's some sort of directed magnetic field therapy. That's about it.

    Here are some links about ECT in realtion to depression.

    • "What are the side effects of ECT?
      Some patients may be confused just after they awaken from the treatment and this generally clears up within an hour or so. Your memory of recent events may be upset and dates, names of friends, public events, addressees and telephone numbers may be temporarily forgotten. In most cases this memory loss goes away within a few days or weeks, although sometimes patients continue to experience memory problems for several months. ECT does not have any long term effects on your memory or your intelligence.

      Are there any serious risks from the treatment?
      ECT is amongst the safest medical treatments given under general anaesthesia, the risk of death or serious injury with ECT is rare and occurs in about one in 50,000 treatments. For example, this is much lower than that reported for childbirth. Very rarely deaths do occur and these are usually because of heart problems. If you do have heart disease, it may still be possible for you to have ECT safely with special precautions such as heart monitoring. Your doctor will ask another specialist to advise if there are grounds for concern. "

      Someone above commented that the side effects were worse than ECT. I haven't found anything else that lists any other side effects, permanent or other. Could you state what effects you were talking about? I think you mentioned brain damage...I haven't found anything to support this. I'm genuinely curious if you have something written somewhere that lists more side effects.

      And the other girl is right. Some people are starting with damaged brains. If they feel better after ECT, then they might not mind a threat of brain damage or death, coz they are already faced with that.