Healthcare News & Insights

Can deep brain stimulation ‘zap’ out mental illness?

Electrodes used to control Parkinson’s tremors may have additional therapeutic uses for patients with some types of mental illness. Researchers are looking into a variety of uses for the implantable electrodes, known as deep brain stimulation or DBS.

Earlier research has shown some promise for the treatment of Tourette’s syndrome, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).For example, a study of more than 60 patients with severe OCD found that about 75% showed significant improvement — many for as long as eight years after treatment.

But there are a number of issues that have to be resolved before the treatment is reliable enough for widespread use. For starters, unlike Parkinson’s patients who see nearly immediate improvement, treating mental illnesses with DBS has generally meant a much longer, slower road to any significant improvement. Combined with the fact that the DBS requires outpatient surgery every two years or so for battery replacement, many patients give up on the treatment.

Researchers have other major stumbling blocks: For mental illnesses, it’s proven difficult to find the exact area of the brain to place the electrodes. Currently, researchers are investigating different treatment areas.

Even for psychiatric patients who respond well to the treatment, the road ahead is a long haul. Most patients still require intensive therapy afterward to deal with their condition. For mental illness, DBS isn’t a cure so much as a first-step that enables other treatments to work more effecitvely.

But for patients suffering with intractable mental illnesses, DBS just might be the best hope.

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