A recent discovery by a study at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) indicates that electrical brain stimulation (EBS) may be utilized as a new strategy to alleviate treatment-resistant depression in the future. It is reported that 25 epileptic patients, who also suffered from depression, experienced significant mood improvement after receiving electrical stimulation of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a region of the brain located just above the eyes.
EBS involves temporary implantation of an electrode in the brain and application of a mild electric current in order to stimulate particular regions of the brain. This procedure is used by neurosurgeons to identify defective brain tissue, which may be responsible for certain neurological disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, etc.
Researchers working in the UCSF study stimulated different regions of the patients’ brains, asked the patients how they felt and analysed their feedback. They found the stimulation of the OFC to be associated with significant mood improvement in patients suffering from moderate to severe depression. However, the improvement was temporary. Also, those with mild symptoms of depression showed no mood improvement.
Before this study, attempts to use EBS to identify the region(s) of the brain responsible for depression are said to have been inconclusive. The discovery of the association of the OFC with depression is likely to aid research aimed at uncovering the mechanism by which depression develops and devising a new, long-term effective strategy for its treatment.
Depression came under the spotlight in South Africa and across the world in 2018 following the death by suicide of several well known individuals who suffered from this mental disorder, including American fashion designer Kate Spade, the University of Cape Town’s cardiologist Professor Bongani Mayosi, South African rapper Hip Hop Pantsula (HHP) and others. Their deaths encouraged a number of people to seek help, with some publicly admitting to suffering from depression at some point in their lives. In November, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reported experiencing an influx of calls from people seeking help following the announcement of the death of HHP, who committed suicide in October after a long battle with depression.
According to the World Health Organisation, depression, a major risk factor for suicide, affects more than 300 million people worldwide. In 2016, SADAG reported that 23 South Africans commit suicide every day. It is common for victims of depression to suffer in silence due to the stigma attached to mental health illnesses and the debilitating nature of this disorder, which can make the idea of getting out of the house and travelling to a health facility feel like an impossible mission. In cognizance of this fact, mental health care providers are adopting new strategies such as online therapy, which enables patients to receive counseling from the privacy and comfort of their own homes.
Currently, treatment for depression includes psychiatric assessment, followed by psychotherapy and prescription of antidepressants if deemed necessary. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 80% to 90% of patients respond well to current treatment and almost all patients feel better than they did before treatment.