By Eve Kirman
Whilst there may be greater emphasis on mindfulness and mental wellbeing these days, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to take a few steps back in terms of our mental health as a nation. According to the Office for National Statistics, a 19% increase in diagnoses of depression was observed between November 2020 and early 2021. This is no surprise, given the turbulent lifestyle and financial insecurity the pandemic has caused to many people’s lives.
Prior to the pandemic, a 2014 study by Mind UK found that three in one hundred people every week are diagnosed with depression in England alone. Depression can affect anyone, and can be experienced due to multifarious elements in a person’s life.
Treatments for depression vary depending on severity, but typically involve talking therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy and/or taking antidepressants, such as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors. In particularly severe cases of depression, where the aforementioned methods of treatment have had no positive effect, patients could be subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
ECT works via the triggering of a small seizure in the brain stimulated by electrical currents. The process is meant to elicit changes in the chemical composition of the brain, however, the controversial process isn’t effective on all patients and can cause many side effects. So what hope is there for patients for which ECT failed to have any effects, or for those not wanting to undertake ECT?
Recently, progress has been made during trials of a new experimental therapy by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. The therapy entails fitting an electrical implant to a patient’s skull. It detects the wearer’s cerebral activity and delivers an electrical impulse to the brain when needed. Thus, the device can disrupt waves of depression instantaneously as they occur.
Despite being only trialled on one patient so far, the results are very hopeful. Sarah, who is 36 and has suffered from severe depression for many years, found no relief in anti-depressants or ECT, yet claims that the new treatment has made her “life worth living” once again. By recording her mood on a website, an algorithm was able to alter itself to interpret the electrical patterns of Sarah’s amygdala, resulting in the system managing to help her properly laugh for the first time in five years.
Katherine Scangos, who led the project, sees this technique as not only successful for individuals, but for the wider understanding of how depression alters the brain, telling The Guardian that “this success in itself is an incredible advancement in our knowledge of brain function that underlies mental illness.” Consultant psychiatrist Professor Rupert McShane of Oxford University agrees, saying that this trial “points to a way of examining the biology of the abrupt slumps into despair that can be so destructive [to those suffering from depression].”
Research into treatments for depression is now pointing towards a more personalised method, but future clinical trials are needed to prove the device’s efficacy in other people. Furthermore, the £26,000 price tag and invasive nature of surgery mean that this can’t be a solution for everyone, with plans to treat only those suffering from severe depression. Nevertheless, even the few steps forward taken here are crucial in society’s battle to improve depression treatments.
Illustration: Ella Blaxill