Although most people turn to pharmaceutical medications to cope with mental illness like depression and PTSD, medications are not a person’s only option. In many cases, making healthy lifestyle changes (i.e. natural cures for depression) such as getting more exercise, reducing stress, and staying out of toxic relationships can be beneficial for a person’s mental health. Though lifestyle changes work well in some cases, there are others that try everything in their power to get better (medications, psychotherapy, dietary changes, exercise) – yet despite their proactive efforts, nothing helps their depression.
For these individuals, pursuing antidepressant augmentation strategies may be helpful, but even in these cases, poly-pharmacology is still often unsuccessful and riddled with side effects. As a last-ditch effort, some people turn to alternative, technology-based options that have shown some promise. Examples of these treatments include: transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), vagus nerve stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), neurofeedback, and low-field magnetic stimulation (LFMS). In some cases, these non-pharmaceutical options can be very helpful in reducing depression.
Bionic Brain Implants for Depression / PTSD
Another option that people may come to fruition within the next 3 years is that of bionic brain implants for depression. This involves inserting an implant inside a person’s head with the goal of specifically targeting faulty brain activity associated with making a person stay “stuck” in their depression. In fact, the first bionic devices to treat resistant forms of depression have already been tested.
Unfortunately, the first devices that were developed were by in large unsuccessful. Although they could be surgically inserted into a person’s head, they didn’t help the majority of individuals who were brave enough to act as guinea pigs for the technology. However, just because the majority of people were unable to find relief from the bionic implant, doesn’t mean that it failed for everyone. In the minority of individuals for which it worked, not only did it work, but it worked extremely well.
A specific case involving a woman named Liss Murphy who had struggled with debilitating depression for years was cited as being a beneficiary of this technology. She experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms after trying countless medications in tandem with therapy sessions. Upon getting a bionic implant in her brain to help counteract depressive symptoms, she noted a significant improvement in mood – and it has been maintained since she received the implant.
Since it didn’t work for a majority of people, the device obviously needed to be reevaluated. With that said, the small minority of individuals that found it beneficial found it highly effective. Neurosurgeon Dr. Emad Eskandar was responsible for surgically implanting the device in several patients. He stated that, “When you pooled everyone together it didn’t work. But there were like five people out of the 10 we did that had remarkable benefits and went into complete remission. We couldn’t continue with the study because on the average it failed, but for those people in whom it worked, boy did it work.”
The type of device that Liss Murphy had implanted in her brain was considered “older” compared to the new devices on the horizon. She received her treatment in 2006, and technology has come a long way throughout the past 8 years. The type of device that she had implanted ran on what is referred to as an “open loop” system. In other words, it combined the process of brain mapping, trial and error, and determining a location and frequency that are optimal for her brain. The bionic stimulator stays activated all the time, and there are currently similar bionic devices that help treat Parkinson’s disease.
Military-Funded Brain Implants: DARPA
In order to target psychiatric illnesses, the military’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is trying to bypass the entire pharmaceutical industry. Their goal is to create brain implants that treat specific psychiatric disorders. There is currently a $70 million project in the works that is completely funded by the military. As a result of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental illnesses that are common among troops, the military wants to find a realistic way to treat these common, debilitating conditions.
Currently they are attempting to create a device that can be placed on the outside of an individual’s head that will be able to determine whether the person is experiencing depression or PTSD. In addition to detecting the onset of these conditions, the device will be able to prevent the conditions from fully developing. Simultaneously they are working on an improved version of the bionic implant that Liss Murphy received in 2006. The new device is going to be small and according to Jim Moran (of Draper Laboratory), it is so small that it “would easily fit inside a box of Tic-Tacs.”
Creating a “closed-loop” system
In order to take this technology to the next level, researchers want to create a more advanced “closed-loop” system; this would be significantly more advanced than the “open loop” system implant that Liss Murphy received in 2006. A “closed loop” system would essentially involve the insertion of brain sensors that will be able to determine when brain activity becomes abnormal.
When brain activity is maladaptive, the closed-loop system would immediately attempt to correct it and then know whether the correction was successful. Neuroscientist from MIT, Dr. Emery Brown, stated that this system is similar to the GPS on a cell phone. He is currently responsible for creating the algorithms that will be used in the implant.
Here’s how the “GPS”-like feature will be useful… Let’s say you are trying to get from Point A to Point B, but end up straying from the most efficient route. The GPS in your phone is able to determine the error in your route and guide you back to the most efficient route. With the implant, if your brain activity transitions to activity that would represent depression or PTSD, the device provides stimulation to correct the activity. In essence, the device provides the same systematic model used by GPS systems to correct a person’s navigation.
Recognizing Neural “Signatures” of Depression and PTSD
In order to make this “closed loop” system a reality, researchers first need to discover neural signatures that correlate with PTSD and depression. Dr. Emery Brown’s first goal is to come up with templates or “signatures” that would represent a specific condition like PTSD. It is long known that those with depression and PTSD have altered brain activity, but the specifics are difficult to determine.
It is somewhat unclear exactly how he’s attempting to do this, but it sounds very interesting. Might he be examining activity within specific regions of the brain and blood flow? Or is it primarily based on electrical activity or brain waves? Or could it be that the device used to correct someone with a “signature” that is indicative of a condition like depression will stimulate changes in brain waves and specific activity in certain parts of the brain? At this point it is difficult to determine how this will work.
Since everyone has a different brain, different genetics, it is not farfetched to assume that those with PTSD may have different “neural signatures” in comparison to each other. Although there may be some common attributes among PTSD sufferers, there’s no telling whether 2 people with PTSD will display different neural signatures altogether. If this is the case, one specific template may not fit all individuals – and treatment will need to be tailored to the individual.
When asked whether there was something that can be traced to determine neural signatures, Eskandar said, “We don’t know. So that is probably going to be the single hardest part.” Chances are that neural signatures among those with depression and PTSD will share similarities, yet significant differences. For the sake of this research, it is hoped that there will be some specifics of a neural signature that are universal among all cases of PTSD and depression.
Clearly these neuroscientists are going to have a very difficult task on their hands trying to come up with something. My guess is that they will attempt to establish some sort of common ground that is observed in the neural signatures of the majority, and then target those specifics with the programming of the bionic implant. Therefore it may end up reducing a significant portion of symptoms, but individual reactions will vary.
Battle of Brain Regions: Amygdala vs. Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex
The researchers have a general idea of how to create this device. They want to use specific brain regions to essentially “battle” against others. As an example, during PTSD, it is known that the amygdala becomes overactive – leading to sensitization and a fear-response. The area of the brain called the “ventromedial prefrontal cortex” is known to suppress activity in the amygdala.
Therefore if their device were able to recognize that the amygdala has become overactive, they could stimulate the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and an individual would likely experience a reduction in symptoms. With the device that they are creating, they would likely start by targeting the amygdala. When the device recognized a certain neural signature that would signal PTSD, it would then stimulate another region of the brain to essentially “turn off” the amygdala. Of course this is easier said than done, but that’s their general idea for starting with this bionic implant.
The Challenge to Create a Bionic Brain Implant that Works
The bionic implant that is being created will be responsible for recording a significant amount of data. In addition to the data recording, the implant must be tiny enough to fit inside a person’s head – with battery power. With rapid advancement in memory storage and computer technology, researchers have been able to essentially place a wall of computers in very tiny space, and the ultimate goal is to surgically insert it into the brain.
The company (Draper) that is behind the creation of these bionic brain implants has also successfully created various types of missiles for the military and navigation systems for NASA. The technology that they are currently developing to influence a person’s brain is a huge step beyond their existing creations. Draper Labs is currently working in cahoots with Massachusetts General Hospital to develop and test this technology.
The implants will be developed and created in state-of-the-art microfabrication laboratories. In these labs, workers must abide by strict precautionary measures such as wearing photosensitive apparel. A developer for the company named Peter Chin has expressed the difficulty behind software development for these implants with the following quote, “Trying to look for something in a dark room… the shape of which I’m not even sure of.”
His biggest challenge is figuring out a way to extract the signal from noise within activity of the brain – and do this with efficiency. To help put things in perspective, he was quoted as saying brain activity is like, “A hundred billion people singing at the same time – sometimes they’re off tune, sometimes they’re in tune, and sometimes you hear a particular harmony that may say something about this whole chorus, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
To figure out what harmony or harmonies to hone in on, it will require a lot of math. Additionally, the harmonies may be one particular signature one minute, and completely different within the hour. Therefore it will take a significant amount of time to devise appropriate algorithms that are necessary for treatment.
When will the brain implant device become available for testing?
According to the creators, the goal is to have something available for trials within 3 years. Although three years is a long period of time, this could be potentially groundbreaking technology in the field of mental health. When it becomes available for testing, only those who are: A) Volunteers and B) Suffer from PTSD or treatment-resistant depression will be able to try this device. This is not going to become a device that’s used by everyone, nor do they expect it to be effective for all users. However, if they are able to help a few people recover, they will consider the implant a success.
If this project is deemed a success, it may pave the way for more bionic technology in the treatment of mental illnesses. This would mean expanding upon existing knowledge and attempting to make improvements even on a groundbreaking bionic implant. It would also mean coming up with more customized solutions for treating individual brain abnormalities. Additionally, it would be a much-needed alternative to the largely problematic industry of pharmaceuticals. The bionic treatments would be more targeted, result in less side effects, and would hopefully be correcting the direct cause of the problem in regards to brain activity.
Considering the large percentage of people who fail to respond to traditional antidepressant treatment, and that depression is projected to be the biggest global disease burden by 2030, it’s about time that we start exploring alternative ways to combat the problem. Even if this device fails, it is a step in the right direction and thinking outside the box beyond pharmaceutical drugs.
If the device ends up being successful, it could provide thousands of people who have essentially been rendered helpless by their mental illness. Additionally, in the event that the device doesn’t work as well as planned in the majority, doesn’t mean that it won’t work for someone. In the process of creating this technology, researchers are going to have a significant amount of data on brain functioning in humans.
How well will the brain implants work?
It is important to never get too excited and caught up believing that a utopian treatment for depression or PTSD is on the horizon. While this device may be a stepping-stone towards revolutionizing treatment for mental illnesses, it may also end up being a complete flop. It is a very difficult undertaking, and despite all the efforts that are going into the creation of this particular device, there’s never a guarantee that it will work.
While the creators are very excited about the potential of this device, they balance this excitement with caution. Individuals like Liss Murphy who have found relief from their treatment-resistant depression with bionic implants will be hoping that this newer technology will be able to provide individuals with the same benefits that she has gotten from her device.
Hypothetical thinking, future possibilities of bionic brain technology
Could it be possible that one day there will be an implant that can be tailored specifically to an individual, giving the person custom control over what they want to experience? In other words, could a bionic implant be inserted into the brain, acting as a universal hub that allows a person to feel any way they want? For example, if someone needed to focus, could they simply program their device wirelessly to trigger brain activity associated with deep concentration?
On the same token, could the device be used by individuals that want to explore consciousness and experiment different ways of thinking? Will all permutations of brain activity be mapped and documented in a catalog of some sort that people can view and choose to experience? What if a person wants to become more outgoing? Could the device trigger the speaking and/or social center of the brain to make a person more extroverted?
Of course these are all hypothetical questions and the concepts are currently far more advanced than this idea. However, assuming technology keeps progressing at such a rapid-rate, it could be assumed that bionic implants may overtake the pharmaceutical industry for treating mental illnesses. Eventually after the bionic phase of the future, it can be safely assumed that we will be able to correct genetic abnormalities via gene therapy and stem-cells if necessary.
It is also possible that some individuals may opt to become cyborgs of sort with bionic implants and genetic modifications – making them have superhuman abilities. Of course this is all speculation, and probably won’t become a reality within my lifetime, but it is something to consider. At one point in the past, people never thought we’d have color television – look how far we’ve come.
Final thoughts on bionic brain implants for depression
The idea that we could influence the brain with bionic implants is somewhat intriguing. I’m not sure how many people would opt for the implants, but assuming that they could be safely inserted via surgery, those with treatment-resistant forms of depression may be open to the idea of getting some sort of therapeutic benefit. It should be mentioned that companies aren’t able to develop a bionic implant that is able to treat all cases of depression.
Additionally, the long-term effects of such treatments will need to be well-documented and safety grounds will need to be established before they become mainstream. Problems with batteries and infection will need to be taken into consideration. Also, even among individuals for which these implants are helpful, there is a chance that insertion of a particular implant may result in other forms of cognitive impairment and/or be of concern to general health.
While I admire those who think outside the box, and also believe that bionic implants (of all types) will be frequently used in the far future with great success, we are a far cry from making this a reality. Should a bionic implant get FDA approval for treatment-resistant depression, it will put some pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to create better medications. And while I don’t think it will cause a collapse in psychotropic pharmaceuticals, it will put pressure on drug companies to create better treatment options (e.g. drugs that work quickly, with few side effects, and over a long-term).
I believe that in the far future, there will be treatments that are individualized based on anatomy, genetics, and other factors. Someone with an abnormal brain structure that is causing their illness may need a bionic implant of some sort to target their depression. In the farther future, I believe that the combination of stem-cells and gene therapy will result in cures for all forms of mental illness – including depression.
In the meantime, let’s see how long it takes researchers to come up with a bionic solution that actually works for a majority. In conclusion, I liked the quote from neuroscientist Emery Brown who said, “We’re moving out of the box. We’re not just saying, ‘Let’s rely on the drugs’ anymore.”