Brain-zapping implants that change mood and lift depression

Teams of researchers are developing sesame seed-size neuro-implants that detect brain activity that signals depression and then deliver targeted electrical zaps to elevate your mood. It's very early days in the science and technology but recent studies suggest that we're on the path. Links to scientific papers below. Fortunately, the goal is to develop tools and a methodology more precise than the horrifically blunt "shock therapy" of last century. From Science News:

DARPA, a Department of Defense research agency, is funding (Massachusetts General Hospital's research on new brain stimulation methods) plus work at UCLA on targeted brain stimulation. Now in its fifth and final year, the (DARPA) project, called SUBNETS, aims to help veterans with major depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and other psychiatric problems. “It is extremely frustrating for patients to not know why they feel the way they do and to not be able to correct it,” Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said in a Nov. 30 statement. “We owe them and their families better options.”

These next-generation systems, primarily being developed at UCSF and Massachusetts General Hospital, might ultimately deliver. After detecting altered brain activity that signals a looming problem, these devices, called closed-loop stimulators, would intervene electrically with what their inventors hope is surgical precision.

In contrast to the UCSF group, Widge, who is at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and his collaborators don’t focus explicitly on mood. The researchers want to avoid categorical diagnoses such as depression, which they argue can be imprecise. Major depression is not the same disease for everyone. Causes and symptoms can differ greatly from person to person. Instead of grouping people by diagnosis, Widge and his team are going after brain circuits that are involved in traits that can be measured in the lab, such as cognitive flexibility (the ability to quickly shift strategies) and emotional regulation. These brain traits can then ultimately be tied to certain brain disorders, the researchers think.

"Direct electrical stimulation of lateral orbitofrontal cortex acutely improves mood in individuals with symptoms of depression." (Current Biology)

"Mood variations decoded from multi-site intracranial human brain activity." (Nature Biotechnology)

"Altering alpha-frequency brain oscillations with rapid analog feedback-driven neurostimulation." (PLOS One)

(image above: Angelique Paulk)