Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Long-term results of deep brain stimulation for depression

The longest follow-up study of people who underwent deep brain stimulation for treatment-resistant major depression has concluded that this technique provides progressive and lasting improvements for some of them. But the investigators caution that many challenges remain before this still-experimental modality is ready for use beyond research studies.

Although it is sometimes likened to a pacemaker for the brain, deep brain stimulation is not quite that simple. In deep brain stimulation, a surgeon implants electrodes in the brain and connects them to a small electrical generator in the chest. Electricity transmitted through the electrodes modulates the transmission of signals in particular areas of the brain — although exactly how this occurs remains unclear.

Investigators at the University of Toronto and Emory University reported outcomes for 20 people who first received deep brain stimulators between 2003 and 2006 and agreed to be followed over time. By the third year of follow-up, six participants had dropped out of the study (three of them because they were not benefiting from deep brain stimulation). The remaining 14 participants were followed for three to six years, depending on when they first received their implant.

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