Electric patch that helps you fight depression while you sleep
01:14 GMT, 19 June 2012
A feel-good ‘patch’ that fights depression while you sleep has been unveiled by scientists.
The device, which is stuck on to the forehead, uses tiny electrical impulses to stimulate the trigeminal nerve in the head.
This nerve, which sits just beneath the forehead, leads to areas in the brain which are thought to control mood.
An estimated five million people in the UK suffer from depression at any one time, and one in four suffers from the condition during their lifetime
Doctors describe the nerve as like the ‘USB port into the brain’.
The device, which contains electrodes, is linked by two wires to a generator the size of a mobile phone, which can be worn around the waist.
In a trial at the University of California in Los Angeles, a small group of patients suffering from major depressive disorder reported a 50 per cent reduction in symptoms after using the patch for eight hours a night for eight weeks.
The patients, who had all suffered from major depressive symptoms for more than four months and not responded to at least one antidepressant, reported feeling better after just two weeks, say the researchers.
They were still taking medication throughout the trial, and said that the device did not disrupt their sleep — although they did report a tingling or tickling sensation when it was first turned on.
An estimated five million people in the UK suffer from depression at any one time, and one in four suffers from the condition during their lifetime.
The trial was conducted on only 11 patients, all of whom were given the therapy.
But scientists are now running a larger, double-blind, clinical trial on 30 patients in which neither the patient nor the scientists know who has been given the active treatment, and who has been given a dummy therapy.
The device has already been shown to improve depressive symptoms in a double-blind trial on epilepsy patients, and these results are set to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, where the results will be analysed and approved by independent scientists before publication.
Dr Christopher DeGiorgio, professor of neurology at the University of California Los Angeles school of medicine, who originally developed the device — called the Neurosigma — to treat epileptic seizures, says: ‘One of the patients on the original epilepsy trial said his epilepsy symptoms hadn’t improved but his wife told us he was more alert, smiling more, and more communicative.
One particular area of the brain that showed an increase in activity is called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in mood
‘Although he hadn’t been diagnosed with depression, he had previously been melancholy, and mood disorders are very common in people with epilepsy.’
After this observation the team used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans to measure blood flow in the brain, and find out how stimulating the trigeminal nerve could be affecting mood.
‘We found that within seconds of stimulating the trigeminal nerve, there were changes in blood flow to areas of the brain which affect seizures, mood and concentration.’
The researchers are unclear how the electrical stimulation boosts blood flow, but say the nerve impulses could tell the brain these areas are in use, and so need a greater blood supply.
One particular area of the brain that showed an increase in activity is called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in mood.
Researchers says the new device could be a useful treatment for patients for whom antidepressant medication has failed.
It may also be an option for those who can’t tolerate the side-effects of antidepressants, which include nausea, weight gain and sexual dysfunction.
Commenting on the device, Dr Paul Blenkiron, consultant psychiatrist at Bootham Park Hospital, York, and public education officer for the Royal College of Psychiatrists Northern and Yorkshire Division, said it could be a welcome addition to drug and psychological treatments for depression — if it is proven to work in larger clinical trials against a placebo.
‘Doctors recognise that one in five people with depression do not get better with the treatments currently available.
‘I look forward to reading about this device in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
'But it’s important to remember that this approach is very much at an early stage.’
Meanwhile, scientists in Scotland have developed a nose spray that they say could help tackle post-natal depression.
Mothers of babies aged eight to 16 weeks are being given the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin in a clinical trial.
This hormone is released during breastfeeding, and laboratory studies show it activates areas in the brain involved in bonding and social interaction.
The researchers, from Glasgow University, say the spray delivery ensures that the hormone reaches the brain faster than if it were taken in a tablet.
This is because the blood vessels that line the nose provide a quick route to the brain, whereas a pill would have to be digested by the stomach before it could have an effect.
The women taking part are at a high risk of suffering from postnatal depression, and will be given either an active or placebo spray.
Before and after treatment the scientists will take a number of measures to gauge bonding between mother and infant, such as the amount of eye contact.