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Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK


Electrical 'cure' for depression

Scientists may have located a part of the brain that controls depression

Scientists say they have been able to provoke major depression by stimulating a small part of the brain.

Experts believe the finding may mean that in the future depression and other brain disorders could be controlled by electrical stimulants.

The new research is thought to differ from the controversial electric convulsive therapy (ECT) because it does not provoke a fit and concentrates on a precise part of the brain.

But mental health campaigners say the long-term effects need more investigation.

The scientists, led by Dr Boulos-Paul Bejjani of the Groupe Hospitalier Pitie-Salpetriere in Paris, say they managed to stimulate depression in a 65-year-old woman suffering from Parkinson's Disease.

They implanted electrodes in the left side of the woman's brain, known as the substantia nigra, and applied 4.5 volts through one electrode.

Within just five seconds, the woman began to cry and feel profoundly sad.

The symptoms began to fade about 90 seconds after the electricity was turned off and the woman started to laugh and joke.

Parkinson's Disease

The scientists also put electrodes on another part of the brain, the subthalamic nucleus, which is just a few millimetres from the substantia nigra.

They found that stimulating this part relieved some of the effects of Parkinson's Disease without causing any mood changes.

[ image: The electrodes provoke the symptoms of major depression]
The electrodes provoke the symptoms of major depression
The woman has suffered from Parkinson's, a degenerative condition which affects co-ordination, for 30 years.

The study is reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr Stuart Yudofsky of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, USA, called the findings "remarkable".

"The report by Bejjani raises fundamental and far-reaching questions about depression," he said, adding that it raised questions about how other areas of the brain affected conditions like alcoholism.

"Will a world that is filled with the pain and suffering caused by severe neuropsychiatric disorders eventually be replaced by one in which we control our feelings, perceptions and behaviour - and those of others - with electrical devices that stimulate the cells of our brain?" he asked.

Medical model

But mental health charity Mind say depression is "very rarely" solely caused by biological factors.

"It is often caused by a combination of factors and can be triggered by events in a person's life," said a spokeswoman.

She added that people needed to have a choice of treatments for the condition.

She said too much emphasis had been placed on the medical model in recent years, which had provoked "an epidemic of overprescribing of anti-depressants".

Mind is against the forced use of ECT and says it often has severe side effects, such as memory loss, and that the long-term results are unclear.

"We need to be sure that any other form of electrical stimulation of the brain would work for everyone and would not provoke side effects," said the spokeswoman.

"It is very serious to intervene directly in the workings of the brain. We would want to know, for example, if the treatment was reversible."

But the Parkinson's Disease Society said it would consider with interest any development which could relieve the symptoms of Parkinson's.

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