Two teams of researchers and neuroscientists have begun preliminary testing of new brain implants that could potentially return brains with “mood disorders” to a healthy state.
The study, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is a subdivision of the U.S. Military’s research division. According to an article in Nature — an international weekly journal of science — the implants will use a series of periodical neurological shocks to detect patterns that are associated with various mood disorders, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There are those patients who, despite traditional forms of therapy such as medication and talk therapy, do not respond as favorably as hoped,” Shahawna Kim, a doctor of psychology based in Brockton, said. “For those suffering from debilitating mood disorders, controlled brain implants may provide a targeted and viable option that can provide hope and relief.”
Despite the promise of giving patients relief from their mood disorders, many have questioned the ethics of creating a device that would provide researchers with real-time access to a patient’s feelings. Roya Ostovar, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Neurodevelopmental Services at McLean Hospital, said she believes there’s more to be done.
“While this treatment seems promising, there is a great deal of work that must be done in order to address the ethical implications of it,” Ostovar said. “Those with severe psychiatric conditions are among the most vulnerable group of the population and must be protected.”
In order to address the ethical concerns surrounding the device, Edward Chang, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Francisco, and Wayne Goodman, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, are working with neuroethics researchers to develop an ethically-sound neurological tool.
“This is seemingly similar to the use of electroconvulsive therapy or shock treatment, which is a very effective conventional treatment for chronic depression, mania, catatonia and schizophrenia,” Ostovar said. “Similar to brain implants, in ECT, a small amount of electrical current is used to stimulate the brain in order to change the activity in the brain.
She added, “This treatment has been very successful for those patients who have not responded to antidepressant medications or other treatments.”
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), another form of treatment, uses magnetic impulses to stimulate part of the brain — the region associated with mood regulation, she said.
“This treatment has been quite helpful in helping those with treatment resistant depression,” Ostovar said. “I am hopeful about the prospects of the implant therapy since it appears to be more targeted and personalized.”
Chang said that his team and another group based in Massachusetts General Hospital hope to eventually treat PTSD and depression in veterans and soldiers.
Both teams are working to create a system of electrodes to be implanted into the brain in an effort to track neurological activity.
At the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington D.C. in mid-November, the MGH team reported significant performance improvements in people who were given electrical pulses to the decision-making and emotional centers of the brain.
Goodman and Chang’s efforts, however, pose yet another ethical dilemma. By stimulating the area of the brain that controls mood, Goodman say that there is a chance the device could “overcorrect” the patient’s emotions, thus creating an “extreme happiness that overwhelms all other feelings.”
“At first glance, the concept seems like something from a Black Mirror episode, but I support it,” said Jamie Sheasley, a graduate student at Boston University. “I think it’s important to treat mental disorders with the same gravity as physical disorders.”
If there are similar treatments for Parkinson’s disease, she said, then it’s logical to attempt to create an equivalent treatment for mental disorders — especially if other methods aren’t working.
“Obviously there needs to be a regulation so that we don’t rely on AI to rid us of natural emotions,” Sheasley continued. “Overall, I support the development of techniques that help individuals get back to their own personal normal.”
Despite the ethical dilemmas, Chang said he has high hopes for the future of neurological implants.
“The exciting thing about these technologies is that for the first time we’re going to have a window on the brain where we know what’s happening in the brain when someone relapses,” he said.