Bionic Brains

Mental illness is now thought to affect 1 in 4 people in the UK yearly, with 1 in 6 affected on a regular basis. Current treatment is counselling and a concoction of medication which should control chemicals in the brain, lowering the ability to have extremes of mood. However, many sufferers claim a zombie-like state caused by stronger medication amongst other side-effects. What is research currently looking at for sufferers?

The mental health charity MIND, provides a list of treatments currently recommended for the full spectrum of mental health conditions. Not too long ago, many mental health conditions were treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as very little science was known. MedicineAlthough ECT is still available for some, the majority of mental health patients are prescribed medication (e.g. anti-depressants, anti-psychotics etc.) to alleviate symptoms. Side-effects of such tablets can be unpleasant and difficult to live with. As a result, researchers are looking into the science behind techniques which do not require drugs, and provide the patients with coping strategies. Techniques such as mindfullness, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and meditation, are currently under the microscope to better understand how they work and how to get the most out of them for each patient. However, for those who suffer from more severe conditions or in cases where the options are diminishing, what is science doing?

brainDeep brain stimulation (DBS) devices are a relatively new treatment and, until now, have mostly been used to treat people who suffer from tremors caused by conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, or in patients with epilepsy. The implants send electrical impulses directly into the brain to control miss-firing impulses which are causing the tremors or seizures. Currently, the procedure is only conducted if medication alone is not improving the life of the patient. The device consists of small electrodes placed in the brain, attached to a rechargeable electrical pulse generator(EPG) (it’s ~2x2x04 inches) which is positioned below the skin in the patient’s chest. The device delivers low-intensity impulses to the targeted areas of the brain, ensuring the neurons don’t misfire. But how can this help mental illness?

Currently, a similar method is being tested for the treatment of schizophrenia. The disease is caused by structural abnormalities in the brain which prevent neurons from communicating as they should. The suggested bionic device would be implanted into the frontal lobe of the brain to regulate neuron stimulation. Current schizophrenia treatment is anti-psychotic medication, which treats symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations, and is known to cause numerous side-effects. Such medication does not treat the root of the problem: miscommunication of neurons. misscommunicationThe proposed device would send low-intensity electrical impulses, like those used for Parkinson’s sufferers, to the frontal lobe: the key area where neurons miscommunicate in schizophrenia sufferers. Such a treatment is unlikely to be the first option for many sufferers as, of course, there are risks involved with any surgery, let alone brain surgery.

Although there is still a long way to go in the development of these devices before they can be used to treat mental health conditions, their current use for Parkinson’s and epilepsy sufferers suggests the device itself is safe within the brain, and the side-effects are less than those endured from the current medicinal options. Other conditions such as depression and OCD, in severe cases, can also be treated using DBS. However, so few people receive this treatment that it is debated whether or not it truly helps. Overall, a lot more research and clinical testing is required before any true benefits of DBS can be confirmed and thus, given more readily to sufferers. However, if the device does prove beneficial for some mental health conditions, DBS could mean an end to the unwanted side-effects associated with anti-depressant/anti-psychotic medication, and improve the lives of many sufferers.

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