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Monday, 2 July, 2001, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
Brain pacemaker to beat depression
Depressed man
A device currently used to treat epilepsy could be used for depression
A pacemaker for the brain could help treat depression in patients where all other treatments have failed.

Scientists at the 7th World Congress of Biological Psychiatry were told that research is being carried out on the device, which is currently used to help treat epilepsy.

About 20% of depressive disorders do not respond to either antidepressants or psychotherapies, but scientists hope that by using this new device they can change this.

A pulse transmitter, which looks like a pocket watch, is implanted in the patient's chest and then connected by wire to the left vagus nerve, which runs down the neck and connects the brain stem with the heart, lung and stomach.

Continued long-term use of the device would raise concerns

Ruth Lesirge, of the Mental Health Foundation

Treating depression

It then sends out a weak 30 second electrical current every five minutes to cells in the nerve.

Watching its use on epilepsy patients, doctors found that as well as alleviating the number and severity of attacks it also "considerably brightened the patient's mood".

The brain can be stimulated by electric currents

They now want to study this and examine its use on depressed patients.

Another method being considered is Transcrannial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).

The patient sits down on a chair and has an octagonal coil of between 10 to 15 centimetres diameter placed on their head.

The coil then carries a current several times per second and generates rapidly pulsating magnetic fields, which stimulate the left forebrain - an area linked to depression.

Courses of treatment take about three weeks and scientists say that so far the results have been positive, but they want to do further research into why the treatments work on some patients and not on others.

The conference will also be looking at recent research and new drugs and therapies for treating depression.

Brain effects

The Mental Health Foundation agreed that more needs to be done to support and care for people experiencing depression, but said it was vital the long-term effects of all these treatments were thoroughly researched.

Ruth Lesirge, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation said: "We would want to ensure that enough work had been undertaken into the long-term effects of the "pacemaker for the brain".

"For example, many people who have undergone ECT (electro convulsive therapy) report long term memory loss and other effects, although for some people it has been a major part of their recovery.

"It is also not clear whether the new device is meant for long term use or whether as part of a short-term approach.

"It may provide a period of stability in which somebody can then try a number of other therapies and approaches, including talking treatments and alternative and complementary therapies to help manage their mood.

"However, continued long-term use of the device would raise concerns."

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