When she woke up after a procedure involving drilling small holes in her skull, a woman suffering from chronic depression reported feeling “euphoric”. The holes were made to fit the wires that connected her brain with a matchbox-sized electrical implant; this would deliver up to 300 short-lived electricity bursts per day to specific parts of her brain.
Over a year later, Sarah, 36, says the brain implant has turned her life around. A sense of alertness and energy have replaced suicidal thoughts and feelings of despair, which had persisted despite antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy. Sarah is the first person to have received a brain implant to treat depression, a breakthrough that happened during an experimental study published recently in Nature Medicine.
“What we did was use deep-brain stimulation (DBS), a technique used in the treatment of epilepsy,” says Andrew Krystal, professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and one of the study’s researchers. DBS typically involves implanting electrodes into specific areas of the brain to reduce seizures not controlled with medication or to remove the part of the brain that causes the seizures. Instead of choosing and stimulating a single brain site though, the UCSF team took a different approach.
They first used 10 electrodes to map Sarah’s brain activity, a phase that lasted 10 days, during which they developed a neural biomarker, a specific pattern of brain activity that indicated the onset of depression symptoms (in Sarah, this was detected in her amygdala, an almondlike structure located near the base of the brain). But they also saw that delivering a tiny burst of electricity to the patient’s ventral striatum, an area of the brain that sits in the center, above and behind the ears, dramatically improved these symptoms. What they had to do was outfit Sara’s brain with a DBS-device programmed to propagate small waves of electricity to the ventral striatum only when it discerned the pattern.
“We are not trying to take away normal responses to the world. We are just trying to eliminate this one thing, which is depression, which impedes patients’ ability to function and deal with normal stuff.”
“It was a personalized treatment not only in where to stimulate, but when to stimulate,” Krystal says. Sarah’s depression translated to low amounts of energy, loss of pleasure and interest in life, and feelings of sluggishness. Those symptoms went away when scientists stimulated her ventral capsule area. When the same area was manipulated by electricity when Sarah’s symptoms “were not there” though, she was feeling more energetic, but this sudden flush of energy soon gave way to feelings of overstimulation and anxiety. “This is a very tangible illustration of why it's best to simulate only when you need it,” says Krystal.
We have the tendency to lump together depression symptoms, but, in reality, they are quite diverse; some people feel sad and lethargic, others stay up all night; some overeat, others don’t eat at all. “This happens because people have different underlying dysfunctions in different parts of their brain. Our approach is targeting the specific brain circuit that modulates different kinds of symptoms. Simply, where we stimulate depends on the specific set of problems a person has,” Krystal says. Such tailormade brain stimulation for patients with long-term, drug-resistant depression, which would be easy to use at home, could be transformative, the UCSF researcher concludes.
In the U.S., 12.7 percent of the population is on antidepressants. Almost exactly the same percentage of Australians–12.5–take similar drugs every day. With 13 percent of its population being on antidepressants, Iceland is the world’s highest antidepressant consumer. And quite away from Scandinavia, the Southern European country of Portugal is the world’s third strongest market for corresponding medication.
By 2020, nearly 15.5 million people had been consuming antidepressants for a time period exceeding five years. Between 40 and 60 percent of them saw improvements. “For those people, it was absolutely what they needed, whether that was increased serotonin, or increased norepinephrine or increased dopamine, ” says Frank Anderson, a psychiatrist who has been administering antidepressants in his private practice “for a long time”, and author of Transcending Trauma, a book about resolving complex and dissociative trauma.
Yet the UCSF study brings to the mental health field a specificity it has long lacked. “A lot of the traditional medications only really work on six neurotransmitters, when there are over 100 neurotransmitters in the brain,” Anderson says. Drugs are changing the chemistry of a single system in the brain, but brain stimulation is essentially changing the very architecture of the brain, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington and a neuroethicist. It is a far more elegant approach to treating brain disorders, with the potential to prove a lifesaver for the 40 to 50 percent of patients who see no benefits at all with antidepressants, Giordano says. It is neurofeedback, on steroids, adds Anderson. But it comes with certain risks.
Even if the device generating the brain stimulation sits outside the skull and could be easily used at home, the whole process still involves neurosurgery. While the sophistication and precision of brain surgeries has significantly improved over the last years, says Giordano, they always carry risks, such as an allergic reaction to anesthesia, bleeding in the brain, infection at the wound site, blood clots, even coma. Non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS), a technology currently being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), could potentially tackle this. Patients could wear a cap, helmet, or visor that transmits electrical signals from the brain to a computer system and back, in a brain-computer interface that would not need surgery.
“This could counter the implantation of hardware into the brain and body, around which there is also a lot of public hesitance,” says Giordano, who is working on such techniques at DARPA.
Embedding a chip in your head is one of the finest examples of biohacking, an umbrella word for all the practices aimed at hacking one’s body and brain to enhance performance –a citizen do-it-yourself biology. It is also a word charged enough to set off a public backlash. Large segments of the population will simply refuse to allow that level of invasiveness in their heads, says Laura Cabrera, an associate professor of neuroethics at the Center for Neural Engineering, Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics at Penn State University. Cabrera urges caution when it comes to DBS’s potential.
“We've been using it for Parkinson's for over two decades, hoping that now that they get DBS, patients will get off medications. But people have continued taking their drugs, even increasing them,” she says. What the UCSF found is a proof of concept that DBS worked in one depressed person, but there’s a long way ahead until we can confidently say this finding is generalizable to a large group of patients. Besides, as a society, we are not there yet, says Cabrera. “Most people, at least in my research, say they don't want to have things in their brain,” she says. But what could really go wrong if we biohacked our own brains anyway?
In 2014, a man who had received a deep brain implant for a movement disorder started developing an affection for Johnny Cash’s music when he had previously been an avid country music fan. Many protested that the chip had tampered with his personality. Could sparking the brain with electricity generated by a chip outside it put an end to our individuality, messing with our musical preferences, unique quirks, our deeper sense of ego?
“What we found is that when you stimulate a region, you affect people’s moods, their energies,” says Krystal. You are neither changing their personality nor creating creatures of eternal happiness, he says. “’Being on a phone call would generally be a setting that would normally trigger symptoms of depression in me,’” Krystal reports his patient telling him. ‘I now know bad things happen, but am not affected by them in the same way. They don’t trigger the depression.’” Of the research, Krystal continues: “We are not trying to take away normal responses to the world. We are just trying to eliminate this one thing, which is depression, which impedes patients’ ability to function and deal with normal stuff.”
Yet even change itself shouldn't be seen as threatening, especially if the patient had probably desired it in the first place. “The intent of therapy in psychiatric disorders is to change the personality, because a psychiatric disorder by definition is a disorder of personality,” says Cabrera. A person in therapy wants to restore the lost sense of “normal self”. And as for this restoration altering your original taste in music, Cabrera says we are talking about rarities, extremely scarce phenomena that are possible with medication as well.
Maybe it is the allure of dystopian sci-fi films: people have a tendency to worry about dark forces that will spread malice across the world when the line between human and machine has blurred. Such mind-control through DBS would probably require a decent leap of logic with the tools science has--at least to this day. “This would require an understanding of the parameters of brain stimulation we still don't have,” says Cabrera. Still, brain implants are not fully corrupt-proof.
“Hackers could shut off the device or change the parameters of the patient's neurological function enhancing symptoms or creating harmful side-effects,” says Giordano.
There are risks, but also failsafe ways to tackle them, adds Anderson. “Just like medications are not permanent, we could ensure the implants are used for a specific period of time,” he says. And just like people go in for checkups when they are under medication, they could periodically get their personal brain implants checked to see if they have been altered or not, he continues. “It is what my research group refers to as biosecurity by design,” says Giordano. “It is important that we proactively design systems that cannot be corrupted.”
Two weeks after receiving the implant, Sarah scored 14 out of 54 on the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale, a ten-item questionnaire psychiatrists use to measure the severity of depressive episodes. She had initially scored 36. Today she scores under 10. She would have had to wait between four and eight weeks to see positive results had she taken the antidepressant road, says Krystal.
He and his team have enrolled two other patients in the trials and hope to add nine more. They already have some preliminary evidence that there's another place that works better in the brain of another patient, because that specific patient had been experiencing more anxiety as opposed to despondency. Almost certainly, we will have different biomarkers for different people, and brain stimulation will be tailored to a person’s unique situation, says Krystal. “Each brain is different, just like each face is different.”
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby