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Much-Hyped Brain-Implant Treatment for Depression Suffers Setback

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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All of us—researchers, journalists, patients and their loved ones–are desperate for genuine progress in treatments for severe mental illness. But if the history of such treatments teaches us anything, it is that we must view claims of dramatic progress with skepticism, or we will fall prey to false hopes.

Trial for depression treatment pioneered by neurologist Helen Mayberg has been suspended, but she remains upbeat. Photo credit Emory University.

Case in point: a depression treatment, pioneered by neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University, that involves electrically stimulating the brain with electrodes inserted through holes drilled in the skull. In 2005, Mayberg and colleagues reported that stimulating a region called Brodmann area 25 can relieve severe, intractable depression in two out of three patients.

Since then, many journalists and scientists have lauded Mayberg’s research. In 2005, National Public Radio called her treatment “revolutionary.” In 2006, the journalist David Dobbs, in a glowing profile of Mayberg in The New York Times Magazine, said her “incredible” results were “already changing how neuroscientists and psychiatrists think about depression.”

More recently, her linkage of depression to area 25 has been praised by  heavyweights such as Nobel laureate and neuroscientist Eric Kandel of Columbia and Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Last October, James Gorman of The New York Times cited Mayberg’s research in a report on how the Pentagon plans to “spend more than $70 million over five years to jump to the next level of brain implants.”

Mayberg continues to report promising results, most recently at a lecture that I attended yesterday at New York University. The most powerful part of her presentation consisted of depressed patients describing how their mood lifted after implants stimulated their brains.

But Mayberg “buried the lead,” as we journalists like to say. Midway through her talk, she mentioned that a multi-center, controlled trial of her method of deep-brain stimulation has halted.

Mayberg, who did not participate in the trial, did not know why exactly it had stopped. But she suspected that either subjects receiving stimulation of area 25 did worse than expected, or controls receiving “sham” surgery did better than expected, or both. Mayberg later told me by email that the so-called BROADEN (BROdmann Area 25 DEep brain Neuromodulation) trial was was overseen by St. Jude Medical Inc., for which she consults.

According to Neurotech Business Reports, an industry newsletter, the FDA suspended the BROADEN trial last fall because it failed a “futility analysis,” which considers whether an experimental treatment has a reasonable chance of improving upon current treatments. (See this post by the terrific blogger “Neurocritic” for more on the suspended trial.)

I’ve always had doubts about Mayberg’s claims. Her implant experiments have involved small numbers of patients (six in her 2005 study and 17 in a 2012 trial). I’m also troubled by Mayberg’s links to medical-device manufacturers, such as St. Jude. Mayberg’s potential conflicts of interest have been explored by one of her rare critics, journalist Alison Bass.

Moreover, I’ve delved into the history of deep-brain stimulation, so I know that it has inspired unfulfilled hopes in the past. (See my 2005 Scientific American article on brain-implant pioneer Jose Delgado.) Although the technology has become more refined, deep brain stimulation is still “associated with surgical risks (e.g., hemorrhage) and psychiatric complications (suicidal attenuation, hypomania) as well as high costs,” according to a recent review in Nature.

In a post last September, I expressed doubts about Mayberg’s work and criticized the reporting on her by David Dobbs. In a comment on my post, Dobbs vigorously defended Mayberg and himself, accusing me of desiring not “to inform, answer, or illuminate, but to deceive, darken, and distract.” (See his entire comment following my blog post.)

My guess is that Dobbs, in spite of the suspended BROADEN trial, will double down on his support of Mayberg’s approach to depression. At NYU, Mayberg admitted that she has to wonder why her implant studies show better results than the BROADEN trial apparently did. “Do my patients want to please me?” she asked.

She nonetheless remained upbeat. She told me by email: “The field will hopefully continue to move forward independently as it is doing, and hopefully companies will see the value of pursuing this approach given the research results.”

The question is, at what point does hope do more harm than good?

For more information: Last September, Financial Times gave an upbeat overview of clinical research on DBS, including the recently suspended BROADEN trial, which according to the newspaper had 200 patients. Psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher discussed the risks and benefits of deep brain stimulation for mental illness in December in Scientific American Mind. Mayberg’s research was praised by physician Sanjay Gupta on CNN in 2012 and by journalist Andrew Solomon on National Public Radio this month. So far, no prominent journalist has mentioned the suspension of the BROADEN trial.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mythusmage 11:54 pm 03/11/2014

    When dealing with people listen not to what they say, listen to what they do.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 8:49 am 03/12/2014

    I remember when I saw an article about this in S.A. awhile ago.

    I blogged,”What part of holes in the head am I supposed to ignore”?

    Geez, peeps.

    Link to this
  3. 3. SteveDrew 1:51 pm 03/12/2014

    In other lectures, Dr. Mayberg has made statements that suggest the Broaden study was undertaken too hastily and that it failed to incorporate the best scientific knowledge into the study’s design. As a result, each DBS surgery was a spin of the roulette wheel as to whether the implants were even close to the targets. The study seemed to view Area 25 as a big pincushion and, as the failed Broaden Study has shown more often than not, St. Jude missed the target by a wide margin.

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  4. 4. rshoff2 3:46 pm 03/17/2014

    It’s disappointing that there are no quick fixes for people with mental challenges or illness. However, it seems mental illnesses mainly becomes evident when juxtaposed with the human social environment. Perhaps society at large, and personal socialization, is where we need to do some of the fixing. It’s a shame that we are living in a society that has such rigid norms. If a kid daydreams, he need a pill. If a kid gets excitable, he need a pill. If someone feels depressed, give them a pill (or two or three).

    Now, questionable surgical intervention?

    At what point are we ‘helping’ people vs enforcing conformity to convenience society?

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  5. 5. rshoff2 3:48 pm 03/17/2014

    …mainly become….
    …he needs….

    and any other mistakes. Dag nabbit.

    Link to this
  6. 6. short_sircuit 9:41 pm 03/17/2014

    I am too depressed to comment on this article.

    Link to this
  7. 7. DBSarea25failure 10:02 am 10/14/2014

    Medical research has its place, so to does professionalism. Medical companies are rushing in far too quickly with the thought of billions of dollars in potential revenue, forgetting that their research is being carried out on people and not lab rats. Depression is not similar to Parkinsons and whilst there are merits in DBS for depression, there are a lot more complications and considerations that need to be taken into account. It is not a matter of simply turning off stimulation if adverse reactions occur. DBS for depression needs intensive considerations prior to surgery and intensive support and follow up after surgery for a long time. There are side effects that need to be accurately reported. My wife underwent this as part of the failed trial spoken about and has severe memory and cognitive problems as a direct result. The companies involved dont wnat to hear about it and dont want to do much to help. This experimental brain surgery should be pulled back for some time so that proper evaluations can be carried out on non human subjects.

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  8. 8. Eloise2745 6:12 pm 12/21/2014

    I’ve seen where other researchers are targeting different areas of the brain (especially some doctors in Europe). Since depression is probably a cluster of symptoms with different etiologies I wonder if part of the problem is we don’t know which area to target in which individual. Clearly not all respond to Area 25 but might respond to other areas.

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  9. 9. LisaCarolyn 11:58 pm 02/25/2015

    I had this procedure in 2009. After almost 30 years it was pretty much my last hope. It was nothing short of a miracle for me. When speaking with the surgeon the day before I remember him asking me what I was most afraid of and my honest answer was that it wouldn’t work. No side effect could be worse than what I had lived with until that point. My heart breaks for the people who could be helped by this procedure and won’t have the chance. There are so many people who have waited so long for any type of relief–I’ve had the opportunity to speak with others in the trial whom have had the positive results as I have.

    I will be forever grateful

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