Charles Conway, MD, holds a vagus nerve stimulation device, which is implanted in research participants to treat depression on June 22, 2018. MATT MILLER/WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

Nerve stimulation treatment for depression offers new hope

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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