Woman Says Experimental Brain Implant Helped Her Lifelong Depression: 'Continuous Prozac'

Deep Brain Stimulation — or DBS — works like a pacemaker in the brain to deliver electrical stimulation that doctors say can help depression

<p>AP Photo/Mary Conlon</p> Emily Hollenbeck

AP Photo/Mary Conlon

Emily Hollenbeck
  • A woman with lifelong depression says she's being helped by an experimental brain implant

  • The device uses Deep Brain Stimulation, or DBS, to electrically stimulate parts of the brain, similar to how a pacemaker works in the heart

  • She credits the device with saving her life, saying, “If I hadn’t had DBS, I’m pretty sure I would not be alive today”

A woman with lifelong depression says an experimental brain implant — which delivers electrical stimulation, similar to a pacemaker — says the device has saved her life.

Emily Hollenbeck is one of a few hundred patients to have an experimental Deep Brain Stimulation implant, and as she told the Associated Press, “If I hadn’t had DBS, I’m pretty sure I would not be alive today,”

“My family has a very long history with mental illness and depression, specifically. My parents took their lives, both of them, by the time I was 30,” she told the outlet, adding that she was 19 when her father died.

“That’s when I started to feel the symptoms, and then the first major episode was when I was 21.”

<p>AP Photo/Mary Conlon</p> Emily Hollenbeck, a patient with a DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) implant, for depression.

AP Photo/Mary Conlon

Emily Hollenbeck, a patient with a DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) implant, for depression.

Depression is a mood disorder that can cause feelings of sadness and a loss of interest, the Mayo Clinic explains. “It affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn't worth living.”

As the Mayo Clinic points out, depression is “more than just a bout of the blues…and you can't simply 'snap out' of it. Depression may require long-term treatment.”

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And for Hollenbeck, she tells the AP, “I had tried every treatment. I tried medications, with the highest doses.”

But it wasn’t until she underwent the implant procedure that she saw a change, calling the device “continuous Prozac,” the brand name for fluoxetine, a common medication for depression.

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“Very very simply, a pacemaker for the brain,” said Dr. Brian Kopell, a neurosurgeon at Mt. Sinai who has performed more than 2,000 DBS procedures.

DBS has been used to treat Parkinson’s disease, targeting the parts of the brain that control motor function according to the Parkinson’s Foundatin — and as the National Library of Medicine says, “clinical trials have reported significant improvements in motor function and health-related quality of life” in patients with the progressive nerve disorder.

The methodology behind treating Parkinson’s and treating depression is the same, as Dr. Kopell told AP: “Depending on where you put the electrode you can engage with various different circuits in the brain.”

<p>Getty</p> Brain scan.


Brain scan.

For depression, the electrodes are placed in the subcallosal cingulate cortex, which “modulates emotional behavior and is particularly involved in feelings of sadness,” the National Library of Medicine explains.

Along with scans from the device, doctors monitor patients’ movements, speech, and self-reported diaries, and use that data to determine a treatment plan.

Related: What's the Difference Between Anxiety and Depression?

And for Hollenbeck, it’s working.

“Just being able to experience spontaneity, to be able to look forward to things. These things wouldn’t even be on my radar with depression,” she tells the AP.

“Now, it’s like, not only am I doing these things but I’m looking forward to them and I’m planning them and I’m enjoying them.”

The manufacturer of the device, Abbott, received a "breakthrough device" designation from Food and Drug Administration to explore the potential for its use, and the AP notes that the agency may make a broader decision on DBS as treatment for depression this year.

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