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.”
In 2010, a 67-year-old former executive assistant for a Fortune 500 company was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. By 2014, her doctors confirmed she had Alzheimer's disease.
As her disease progressed, she continued to live independently but wasn't able to drive anymore. Today, she can manage most of her everyday tasks, but her two daughters are considering a live-in caregiver. Despite her condition, the woman may represent a beacon of hope for the approximately 44 million people worldwide living with Alzheimer's disease. The now 74-year-old is among a small cadre of Alzheimer's patients who have undergone an experimental ultrasound procedure aimed at slowing cognitive decline.
In November 2020, Elisa Konofagou, a professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Ultrasound and Elasticity Imaging Laboratory at Columbia University, and her team used ultrasound to noninvasively open the woman's blood-brain barrier. This barrier is a highly selective membrane of cells that prevents toxins and pathogens from entering the brain while allowing vital nutrients to pass through. This regulatory function means the blood-brain barrier filters out most drugs, making treating Alzheimer's and other brain diseases a challenge.
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce live images from the inside of the human body. But scientists think it could also be used to boost the effectiveness of Alzheimer's drugs, or potentially even improve brain function in dementia patients without the use of drugs.
The procedure, which involves a portable ultrasound system, is the culmination of 17 years of lab work. As part of a small clinical trial, scientists positioned a sensor transmitting ultrasound waves on top of the woman's head while she sat in a chair. The sensor sends ultrasound pulses throughout the target region. Meanwhile, investigators intravenously infused microbubbles into the woman to boost the effects of the ultrasound. Three days after the procedure, scientists scanned her brain so that they could measure the effects of the treatments. Five months later, they took more images of her brain to see if the effects of the treatment lasted.
After the first brain scan, Konofagou and her team found that amyloid-beta, the protein that clumps together in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and disrupts cell function, had declined by 14%. At the woman's second scan, amyloid levels were still lower than before the experimental treatment, but only by 10% this time. Konofagou thinks repeat ultrasound treatments given early on in the development of Alzheimer's may have the best chance at keeping amyloid plaques at bay.
This reduction in amyloid appeared to halt the woman's cognitive decline, at least temporarily. Following the ultrasound treatment, the woman took a 30-point test used to measure cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's. Her score — 22, indicating mild cognitive impairment — remained the same as before the intervention. Konofagou says this was actually a good sign.
"Typically, every six months an Alzheimer's patient scores two to three points lower, so this is highly encouraging," she says.
Konofagou speculates that the results might have been even more impressive had they applied the ultrasound on a larger section of the brain at a higher frequency. The selected site was just 4 cubic centimeters. Current safety protocols set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stipulate that investigators conducting such trials only treat one brain region with the lowest pressure possible.
The Columbia trial is aided by microbubble technology. During the procedure, investigators infused tiny, gas-filled spheres into the woman's veins to enhance the ultrasound reflection of the sound waves.
The big promise of ultrasound is that it could eventually make drugs for Alzheimer's obsolete.
"Ultrasound with microbubbles wakes up immune cells that go on to discard amyloid-beta," Konofagou says. "In this way, we can recover the function of brain neurons, which are destroyed by Alzheimer's in a sort of domino effect." What's more, a drug delivered alongside ultrasound can penetrate the brain at a dose up to 10 times higher.
Costas Arvanitis, an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who studies ultrasonic biophysics and isn't involved in the Columbia trial, is excited about the research. "First, by applying ultrasound you can make larger drugs — picture an antibody — available to the brain," he says. Then, you can use ultrasound to improve the therapeutic index, or the ratio of the effectiveness of a drug versus the ratio of adverse effects. "Some drugs might be effective but because we have to provide them in high doses to see significant responses they tend to come with side effects. By improving locally the concentration of a drug, you open up the possibility to reduce the dose."
The Columbia trial will enroll just six patients and is designed to test the feasibility and safety of the approach, not its efficacy. Still, Arvantis is hopeful about the potential benefits of the technique. "The technology has already been demonstrated to be safe, its components are now tuned to the needs of this specific application, and it's safe to say it's only a matter of time before we are able to develop personalized treatments," he says.
Konofagou and her colleagues recently presented their findings at the 20th Annual International Symposium for Therapeutic Ultrasound and intend to publish them in a scientific journal later this year. They plan to recruit more participants for larger trials, which will determine how effective the therapy is at improving memory and brain function in Alzheimer's patients. They're also in talks with pharmaceutical companies about ways to use their therapeutic approach to improve current drugs or even "create new drugs," says Konofagou.
A New Treatment Approach
On June 7, the FDA approved the first Alzheimer's disease drug in nearly two decades. Aducanumab, a drug developed by Biogen, is an antibody designed to target and reduce amyloid plaques. The drug has already sparked immense enthusiasm — and controversy. Proponents say the drug is a much-needed start in the fight against the disease, but others argue that the drug doesn't substantially improve cognition. They say the approval could open the door to the FDA greenlighting more Alzheimer's drugs that don't have a clear benefit, giving false hope to both patients and their families.
Konofagou's ultrasound approach could potentially boost the effects of drugs like aducanumab. "Our technique can be seamlessly combined with aducanumab in early Alzheimer's, where it has shown the most promise, to further enhance both its amyloid load reduction and further reduce cognitive deficits while using exactly the same drug regimen otherwise," she says. For the Columbia team, the goal is to use ultrasound to maximize the effects of aducanumab, as they've done with other drugs in animal studies.
But Konofagou's approach could transcend drug controversies, and even drugs altogether. The big promise of ultrasound is that it could eventually make drugs for Alzheimer's obsolete.
"There are already indications that the immune system is alerted each time ultrasound is exerted on the brain or when the brain barrier is being penetrated and gets activated, which on its own may have sufficient therapeutic effects," says Konofagou. Her team is now working with psychiatrists in hopes of using brain stimulation to treat patients with depression.
The potential to modulate the brain without drugs is huge and untapped, says Kim Butts Pauly, a professor of radiology, electrical engineering and bioengineering at Stanford University, who's not involved in the Columbia study. But she admits that scientists don't know how to fully control ultrasound in the brain yet. "We're only at the starting point of getting the tools to understand and harness how ultrasound microbubbles stimulate an immune response in the brain."
Meanwhile, the 74-year-old woman who received the ultrasound treatment last year, goes on about her life, having "both good days and bad days," her youngest daughter says. COVID-19's isolation took a toll on her, but both she and her daughters remain grateful for the opportunity to participate in the ultrasound trial.
"My mother wants to help, if not for herself, then for those who will follow her," the daughter says. She hopes her mother will be able to join the next phase of the trial, which will involve a drug in conjunction with the ultrasound treatment. "This may be the combination where the magic will happen," her daughter says.
In 2017, researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia grew extremely preterm lambs from hairless to fluffy inside a "biobag," a dark, fluid-filled bag designed to mimic a mother's womb.
"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies."
This happened over the course of a month, across a delicate period of fetal development that scientists consider the "edge of viability" for survival at birth.
In 2019, Australian and Japanese scientists repeated the success of keeping extremely premature lambs inside an artificial womb environment until they were ready to survive on their own. Those researchers are now developing a treatment strategy for infants born at "the hard limit of viability," between 20 and 23 weeks of gestation. At the same time, Dutch researchers are going so far as to replicate the sound of a mother's heartbeat inside a biobag. These developments signal exciting times ahead--with a touch of science fiction--for artificial womb technologies. But is there a catch?
"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies," says Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist and lawyer at The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in New York. "These technologies can decrease morbidity and mortality for infants at the edge of viability and help them survive without significant damage to the lungs or other problems," she says.
It is a viewpoint shared by Frans van de Vosse, leader of the Cardiovascular Biomechanics research group at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. He participates in a university project that recently received more than $3 million in funding from the E.U. to produce a prototype artificial womb for preterm babies between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation by 2024.
The Eindhoven design comes with a fluid-based environment, just like that of the natural womb, where the baby receives oxygen and nutrients through an artificial placenta that is connected to the baby's umbilical cord. "With current incubators, when a respiratory device delivers oxygen into the lungs in order for the baby to breathe, you may harm preterm babies because their lungs are not yet mature for that," says van de Vosse. "But when the lungs are under water, then they can develop, they can mature, and the baby will receive the oxygen through the umbilical cord, just like in the natural womb," he says.
His research team is working to achieve the "perfectly natural" artificial womb based on strict mathematical models and calculations, van de Vosse says. They are even employing 3D printing technology to develop the wombs and artificial babies to test in them--the mannequins, as van de Vosse calls them. These mannequins are being outfitted with sensors that can replicate the environment a fetus experiences inside a mother's womb, including the soothing sound of her heartbeat.
"The Dutch study's artificial womb design is slightly different from everything else we have seen as it encourages a gestateling to experience the kind of intimacy that a fetus does in pregnancy," says Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, an assistant professor in biolaw at Durham Law School in the U.K. But what is a "gestateling" anyway? It's a term Romanis has coined to describe neither a fetus nor a newborn, but an in-between artificial stage.
"Because they aren't born, they are not neonates," Romanis explains. "But also, they are not inside a pregnant person's body, so they are not fetuses. In an artificial womb the fetus is still gestating, hence why I call it gestateling."
The terminology is not just a semantic exercise to lend a name to what medical dictionaries haven't yet defined. "Gestatelings might have a slightly different psychology," says Romanis. "A fetus inside a mother's womb interacts with the mother. A neonate has some kind of self-sufficiency in terms of physiology. But the gestateling doesn't do either of those things," she says, urging us to be mindful of the still-obscure effects that experiencing early life as a gestateling might have on future humans. Psychology aside, there are also legal repercussions.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the "inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being," with "everyone" including neonates. However, such a legal umbrella is absent when it comes to fetuses, which have no rights under the same declaration. "We might need a new legal category for a gestateling," concludes Romanis.
But not everyone agrees. "However well-meaning, a new legal category would almost certainly be used to further erode the legality of abortion in countries like the U.S.," says Johnston.
The "abortion war" in the U.S. has risen to a crescendo since 2019, when states like Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia passed so-called "fetal heartbeat bills," which render an abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected. The situation is only bound to intensify now that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court's fiercest champions for abortion rights, has passed away. If President Trump appoints Ginsburg's replacement, he will probably grant conservatives on the Court the votes needed to revoke or weaken Roe v. Wade, the milestone decision of 1973 that established women's legal right to an abortion.
"A gestateling with intermediate status would almost certainly be considered by some in the U.S. (including some judges) to have at least certain legal rights, likely including right-to-life," says Johnston. This would enable a fetus on the edge of viability to make claims on the mother, and lead either to a shortening of the window in which abortion is legal—or a practice of denying abortion altogether. Instead, Johnston predicts, doctors might offer to transfer the fetus to an artificial womb for external gestation as a new standard of care.
But the legal conundrum does not stop there. The viability threshold is an estimate decided by medical professionals based on the clinical evidence and the technology available. It is anything but static. In the 1970s when Roe v. Wade was decided, for example, a fetus was considered legally viable starting at 28 weeks. Now, with improved technology and medical management, "the hard limit today is probably 20 or 21 weeks," says Matthew Kemp, associate professor at the University of Western Australia and one of the Australian-Japanese artificial womb project's senior researchers.
The changing threshold can result in situations where lots of people invested in the decision disagree. "Those can be hard decisions, but they are case-by-case decisions that families make or parents make with the key providers to determine when to proceed and when to let the infant die. Usually, it's a shared decision where the parents have the final say," says Johnston. But this isn't always the case.
On May 9th 2016, a boy named Alfie Evans was born in Liverpool, UK. Suffering seizures a few months after his birth, Alfie was diagnosed with an unknown neurodegenerative disorder and soon went into a semi-vegetative state, which lasted for more than a year. Alfie's medical team decided to withdraw his ventilation support, suggesting further treatment was unlawful and inhumane, but his parents wanted permission to fly him to a hospital in Rome and attempt to prolong his life there. In the end, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that doctors could stop providing life support for Alfie, saying that the child required "peace, quiet and privacy." What happened to little Alfie raised huge publicity in the UK and pointedly highlighted the dilemma of whether parents or doctors should have the final say in the fate of a terminally-ill child in life-support treatment.
"In a few years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue."
Alfie was born and, thus had legal rights, yet legal and ethical mayhem arose out of his case. When it comes to gestatelings, the scenarios will be even more complicated, says Romanis. "I think there's a really big question about who has parental rights and who doesn't," she says. "The assisted reproductive technology (ART) law in the U.K. hasn't been updated since 2008....It certainly needs an update when you think about all the things we have done since [then]."
This June, for instance, scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina published research showing that they could take a small sample of tissue from a rabbit's uterus and create a bioengineered uterus, which then supported both fertilization and normal pregnancy like a natural uterus does.
"In [a number of] years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue," says Dr. Anthony Atala, the Institute's director and a pioneer in regenerative medicine. These bioengineered uteri will eventually be covered by insurance, Atala expects. But when it comes to artificial wombs that externally gestate premature infants, will all mothers have equal access?
Medical reports have already shown racial and ethnic disparities in infertility treatments and access to assisted reproductive technologies. Costs on average total $12,400 per cycle of treatment and may require several cycles to achieve a live birth. "There's no indication that artificial wombs would be treated any differently. That's what we see with almost every expensive new medical technology," says Johnston. In a much more dystopian future, there is even a possibility that inequity in healthcare might create disturbing chasms in how women of various class levels bear children. Romanis asks us to picture the following scenario:
We live in a world where artificial wombs have become mainstream. Most women choose to end their pregnancies early and transfer their gestatelings to the care of machines. After a while, insurers deem full-term pregnancy and childbirth a risky non-necessity, and are lobbying to stop covering them altogether. Wealthy white women continue opting out of their third trimesters (at a high cost), since natural pregnancy has become a substandard route for poorer women. Those women are strongly judged for any behaviors that could risk their fetus's health, in contrast with the machine's controlled environment. "Why are you having a coffee during your pregnancy?" critics might ask. "Why are you having a glass of red wine? If you can't be perfect, why don't you have it the artificial way?"
Problem is, even if they want to, they won't be able to afford it.
In a more sanguine version, however, the artificial wombs are only used in cases of prematurity as a life-saving medical intervention rather than as a lifestyle accommodation. The 15 million babies who are born prematurely each year and may face serious respiratory, cardiovascular, visual and hearing problems, as well as learning disabilities, instead continue their normal development in artificial wombs. After lots of deliberation, insurers agree to bear the cost of external wombs because they are cheaper than a lifetime of medical care for a disabled or diseased person. This enables racial and ethnic minority women, who make up the majority of women giving premature birth, to access the technology.
Even extremely premature babies, those babies (far) below the threshold of 28 weeks of gestation, half of which die, could now discover this thing called life. In this scenario, as the Australian researcher Kemp says, we are simply giving a good shot at healthy, long-term survival to those who were unfortunate enough to start too soon.