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May 27, 2024

New brain stimulation techniques offer hope for hard-to-treat depression

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Jan 17, 2024

New research shows that precisely targeted magnetic and electrical stimulation of the brain can dramatically improve symptoms for the significant portion of depression patients who do not respond to medications or therapy. These innovative approaches, guided by brain imaging, may usher in a new era of personalized, non-invasive treatment for this debilitating condition.

MRI-guided brain stimulation achieves lasting improvement in severe cases

A new study published this week demonstrated that repeated sessions of MRI-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) significantly reduced symptoms for at least 6 months in people with severe treatment-resistant depression.

TMS uses targeted magnetic pulses to stimulate parts of the brain associated with mood regulation. When guided by MRI scans that pinpoint each individual’s unique brain circuitry, stimulation of the specific areas that are disrupted in that person can lead to marked and sustained improvement not seen with medications or other TMS approaches [1].

Of the 42 participants who received 10-15 TMS sessions over 6 weeks, 40% achieved remission of depressive symptoms by the end of treatment. And impressively, 60% were still in remission 6 months later with no further interventions. These promising findings suggest MRI-guided TMS, though currently experimental, could become an effective therapy for those suffering from the most stubborn, chronic forms of major depression.

Electric brain stimulation via wearable headset shows early success

In another recent development, a UK-designed wearable headset that gently stimulates key brain areas has shown dramatic effects after 6 weeks of use by patients with moderate to severe depression.

The Flow headset delivers small doses of electric current via four electrodes placed on the forehead. This stimulation, known as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), modulates networks involved in mood, motivation, and cognition.

Early results from an ongoing NHS trial including over 300 patients found over 60% saw halving or better of PHQ-9 depression severity scores after 6 weeks of 20-minute headset sessions. For context, approved antidepressant medications lead to this degree of improvement in roughly 1/3 of patients. The headset’s convenient at-home use and excellent tolerability are also positives over medication side effects and accessibility barriers of TMS [2].

While more study is needed, experts are highly encouraged by these signals that tDCS could empower patients to manage their own depression by directly targeting brain physiology [3]. Ongoing work also aims to identify distinct subtypes most likely to benefit from various stimulation techniques.

Treatment Typical response rate
Antidepressant medication 1/3 achieve ≥50% symptom improvement
MRI-guided TMS 60% in remission through 6 months
tDCS (Flow headset) Over 60% halve symptoms after 6 weeks

Why brain stimulation is superior for certain patients

Both TMS and tDCS offset abnormal brain activity patterns underlying depressive symptoms. Rather than indirectly trying to boost neurotransmitters like SSRIs or therapy talking through thought patterns, stimulation directly targets the biology sustaining mood disorders.

Brain imaging reveals clear differences in regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) that fail to activate properly in depression. Hyperactivity linking the brain’s default mode and salience networks also correlates with rumination and emotional pain. By increasing blood flow and electrical signals to these areas, stimulation can nudge network activity closer to normal [4].

These approaches therefore hold special promise for treatment resistant patients and those feeling hopeless on multiple failed medication attempts. The fact that protocols like MRI-TMS sustain benefit even 6 months after stimulation ends also suggest they may durably correct abnormalities – unlike drugs that require ongoing administration [5].

Next steps: refining protocols, combination treatments, prevention applications

Moving forward, researchers aim to continue improving stimulation parameters and techniques like vector-based coil positioning for greater personalization and consistency.

They also hope to explore combining brain stimulation with supplementary medications, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes for synergistic effects. Even greater benefits may come from applying mild preventative “doses” of stimulation to reinforce healthy neural connections in those susceptible to depression based on biomarkers and risk factors [6].

Along with parallel work in AI-assisted diagnosis and care integration, the field can continue expanding access and optimizing solutions. In time brain stimulation and related innovations could lift millions worldwide out of the disability imposed by chronic and recurrent mood disorders.

Conclusion

In all, newly published research highlights that targeted non-invasive stimulation of mood and cognition brain regions can help many who fail to respond adequately to available depression treatments. Though still emerging, MRI-guided TMS protocols and easy to use tDCS headsets are demonstrating considerable promise in severe patient groups.

Moving these approaches to broad clinical availability may realize the long hoped for goal of durable and accessible remedies for the millions who battle this devastating and tragically misunderstood condition.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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