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Nerve stimulation treatment for depression offers new hope

Published: 15th October, 2018 at 00:00
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A new device that stimulates the vagus nerve with a tiny electric current is helping people whose depression is resistant to medication.

Up to two-thirds of people suffering from depression don’t respond to medication. Now, researchers at Washington University have found that implanting a device that sends mild electrical signals to the brain from the vagus nerve – a nerve that stretches from the brain to the chest – can improve their quality of life.


The study involved nearly 600 patients with depression, whose symptoms could not be alleviated by four or more antidepressants. The team implanted 328 of these with vagus nerve stimulators, while 271 continued with other treatments. They found that those with the stimulators improved markedly in 10 out of 14 quality of life measures including physical health, family relationships and ability to work.

“When evaluating patients with treatment-resistant depression, we need to focus more on their overall wellbeing,” said psychiatrist Prof Charles R Conway, who led the research. “A lot of patients are on as many as three, four or five antidepressant medications, and they’re just barely getting by. But when you add a vagus nerve stimulator, it really can make a big difference in people’s lives.”

Study participant Charles Donovan had been hospitalised for depression several times. “Slowly but surely, my mood brightened. I went from being basically catatonic to feeling little or no depression,” he said. “Before the stimulator, I didn’t want to leave the house, I couldn’t concentrate to sit and watch a movie. But after I got the stimulator, I could do things like read a book or watch a TV show. Those things improved my quality of life.”

This is an extract from issue 327 of BBC Focus magazine.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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