The procedure starts with a surgeon drilling two holes in the patient’s skull. “Every bone and tooth in my head was rattling,” says Lisa Battiloro, who was awake, but not in pain, during the eight-hour operation.
Neurologists asked her questions and issued commands as they pinpointed the exact spot in her brain for electrical stimulation. At one point, “I suddenly felt hopeful and optimistic about the future,” recalls Ms. Battiloro, who had battled severe depression for more than a decade. That’s when the doctors knew they had found Brodmann 25, an area deep in the cerebral cortex associated with negative mood. They secured the electrodes in place, then sedated Ms. Battiloro while they ran an extension wire under the skin, down the side of her head and into her chest, where they implanted a battery pack to supply her brain with a mild electrical current.
Within two months, Ms. Battiloro says, her depression had lifted considerably. Now, nearly four years later, it hasn’t returned. “My friends and family are amazed,” say Ms. Battiloro, 41, of Boynton Beach, Fla. “I’m a new and improved Lisa.”
Deep brain stimulation, sometimes called a pacemaker for the brain, has helped halt tremors in more than 100,000 patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders since 1997. Now, researchers are reporting encouraging results using the procedure for psychiatric conditions as well. Ms. Battiloro was one of 17 patients in a study published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry. After two years of DBS, 92% reported significant relief from their major depression or bipolar disorder and more than half were in remission, with no manic side effects.
“We are seeing dramatic effects in the small numbers of subjects, and they are not just getting well, they are getting well without side effects and without relapsing,” says neurologist Helen Mayberg, who led the study at Emory University in Atlanta.