There is no universally accepted ‘best’ treatment for depression. What seems to help one person falls short for another and we are still quite a way off being able to offer a cure. Depression is one of those blurry areas where we describe its cause as multifactorial. Genes, bereavement, illness, stress, divorce, job-loss, diet, drugs; the list goes on. We accept that depression has many different triggers and we know its progress differs from person to person.
Treatments for depression are treading water. With the lack of any groundbreaking discoveries we try to refine what’s available. It’s quite a task when you consider there are over 350 million depression sufferers and rates increasing are increasing annually (World Health Organization). Essentially we’ve settled for combination therapies involving medication, talking therapies and self-help as the principle ways of relieving distress. The approach can work quite well for mild to moderate depression and many people have benefited.
Some people experience depression that appears stubbornly resistant to what’s on offer. A quick check of that well-known search engine and I’m reminded of the extent of the problem. The National Institute of Mental Health points to 6.7% of the U.S. adult population experiencing major depressive disorder. Big numbers, especially when as Khalid Saad Al-Harbi states in his opening paragraph:
“Patients with major depression respond to antidepressant treatment, but 10%–30% of them do not improve or show a partial response coupled with functional impairment, poor quality of life, suicide ideation and attempts, self-injurious behavior, and a high relapse rate.”
So, what’s available for the many thousands of folk who simply don’t respond to standard treatments? Well, I started out to report on the promising results of a new treatment approach and got sidetracked by my own introduction – but better late than never:
Danish researchers at the University of Copenhagen have disclosed they are so impressed by the results of their treatment helmet they have applied to the European Union to market it within six months to a year. The helmet, which is actually seven individually encased coils strapped around and over the head, delivers tiny electrical impulses that are undetectable by the patient. Professor Steen Dissing states the purpose of the signaling is to mimic the natural electrical field in the brain. This has the effect of activating brain capillaries, which in turn form new blood vessels and triggers the body’s own healing mechanism. In clinical trials, two thirds of 65 treatment-resistant clinically depressed patients reported mood improvements and loss of depressive symptoms within a week.
This isn’t the first time some form of external electrical impulse has been used in the treatment of depression. The most contentious approach is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) which requires the use of sedation and sufficient discharge of current to the brain in order to generate a seizure. More recently, the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) has shown promise. Here, the patient remains awake while targeted pulses of magnetic energy are applied. What makes the new device interesting is that it can be self-administered at home, for a period of perhaps just 30 minutes a day, with no obvious side-effects. The researchers also point out that its use appears to have the additional effect of making antidepressant medication easier to tolerate.
Check out the BBC video clip in which Prof Steen Dissing describes his invention.