UCL in the News: Can drilling electrodes into your brain cure depression?

5 February 2008

  • Jerome Burne, ‘Daily Mail’

Deep brain stimulation sounds like a form of fiendish torture. …

A local anaesthetic numbs the pain of drilling but you have to remain conscious so that you can help the neurosurgeon guide the wires to precisely the correct spot - to do this, you report your thoughts and emotions as the stimulating electricity is turned on. …

It holds out the hope of relief from a range of conditions where conventional treatments have failed. …

Electrical stimulation … enables neurosurgeons to target areas involved in specific feelings and actions, such as movement, and then turn them on or off. …

“People still have the notion that surgery for psychiatric disorders is barbaric,” says Dr Patricia Limousin [UCL Institute of Neurology].

“So I don’t think anyone is using deep brain stimulation for depression in the UK yet.”

However, the neurologists involved are very positive about the benefits.

“People can get very emotional about brain surgery,” says Professor Vincent Walsh [UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience].

“It’s highly complicated, of course, but it is just another organ, and if operating can help patients then we should do it.

“If you ask a Parkinson’s patient if he is willing to risk the possible problems for the probable benefits, the answer is nearly always yes.” …

The use of devices that work from the outside, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, or a related form, transcranial direct current stimulation, may eventually become more widespread.

Instead of the brutal invasion of drilling into the brain, the equipment is put against the head and directs a magnetic field or weak electric current through the skull.

“They can turn nearby brain cells temporarily on or off without having to operate,” explains Professor Walsh. …

It’s predicted that within ten years there might be all sorts of applications. One of the most exciting is the use of deep brain stimulation technology to help stroke victims who have lost the use of a limb.

“An implanted computer chip would monitor the region of the brain where the intention to move shows up,” explains Dr Limousin.

“Then, using the knowledge gained with deep brain stimulation, the chip would send a signal to the area that tells the muscles to move.” …