An implanted device that can send mild pulses of electricity into the brain has significantly improved the lives of patients suffering from depression.
On Tuesday, Aug. 21, The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry published the findings of a study by researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that evaluated vagus nerve stimulation as a treatment to patients who do not respond to four antidepressant medications. About 600 people were involved in the study.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation Improves Quality Of Life
A vagus nerve stimulator is a device that sends regular and mild pulses of electric energy to a person's brain, traveling down to the neck, chest, and abdomen. It has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as treatment for epilepsy in 1997 and then for depression in 2005 (although health insurance companies rarely pay for them).
In the study, patients who have been using vagus nerve stimulators reported that they regained a significant quality of life that lasts up to five years. These improvements allowed the patients suffering from depression to work, socialize, and have better relationships with their families.
"It includes overall well-being and sex drive," Dr. Charles Conway, who led the research, told NBC News. "They describe improvements beyond 'I am not feeling sad or down anymore.' They say things like, 'I am more enthusiastic about life. I am more involved with my family.'"
The researchers followed 328 treatment-resistant patients implanted with the vagus nerve stimulators and compared their response to 271 people who received regular treatments for depression.
The researchers, then, evaluated the patients' quality of life based on 14 categories, which include physical health, family relationships, and overall well-being.
Out of 14, the patients who have vagus nerve stimulators reported improvement in 10 categories.
"For a person to be considered to have responded to a depression therapy, he or she needs to experience a 50 percent decline in his or her standard depression score," added Conway. "But we noticed, anecdotally, that some patients with stimulators reported they were feeling much better even though their scores were only dropping 34 to 40 percent."
Vagus Nerve Stimulator As The Future Of Depression Treatment
The study can further re-evaluate how the psychiatric world measure antidepressant response of a patient based on standardized depressive symptom scales and not on the quality of life. Conway and his team of researchers also hope that the findings will encourage health insurance companies to recognize the effectivity of the device and pay for the surgery needed to implant them.