Symposium shines light on pacemaker for brain

Symposium shines light on pacemaker for brain Bradenton Herald January 06, 2007 – It gives us hope. The brain is the last frontier and these scientists are the pioneers.

Virginia Toulmin of Sarasota had the pleasure Saturday of witnessing the results of her support of mental health research when Dr. Helen Mayberg took the stage at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center to explain how a pacemaker for the brain may one day help turn off severe depression.

A grant from Toulmin through NARSAD, The Mental Health Research Association, helped underwrite Mayberg’s research.
A professor of psychiatry and neurology at Emory University, Mayberg was one four NARSAD scientists who presented their findings to an audience of more than 300 at the 10th annual Sunshine From Darkness Symposium.

Mayberg described depression as ‘sadness stuck’ – the inability of the brain to move beyond a state of severe anguish and despair to a normal functioning state.

Through brain mapping experiments using high-tech imaging technology, Mayberg located the exact spot of gray matter that works as a toggle switch for regulating moods and emotions.

Depression, she said, results from a complex disturbance in the brain circuitry that causes the toggle to dysfunction.

Healthy people have the ability to switch the toggle off, to move beyond sadness. For those who are depressed, the toggle gets stuck.

Borrowing from research on Parkinson’s disease that has proven the brain circuits can be stimulated through implanted electrodes to control the symptoms of the disease, Mayberg wanted to see if the same deep brain stimulation could affect the toggle switch in patients with severely disabling depression in whom proven treatment options had failed.

Mayberg’s team implanted thin wire electrodes in each patient’s brain adjacent to the toggle switch area.

The other ends of the wires were threaded under the skin of the neck to a battery powered pulse generator that produces an electrical current similar to a pacemaker.

By regulating the intensity of the current, Mayberg stimulated the toggle switch.

Her first patient described an intense feeling of calm as the current pulsed through his brain.

Another patient Mayberg quoted described the experience as transforming.

‘You didn’t give me anything,’ the patient said, ‘but you took something away, that heavy sinking vortex now is gone. It’s as if instead of being in the Grand Canyon, I am now standing on the ledge.’

Just like a pacemaker remains in the body to regulate the heartbeat, the electrodes implanted in the brain are an ongoing treatment to control the depression, she said.

Mayberg and her team tracked patients’ responses over a six-month period by scanning blood flow activity in their brains.

A significant response was seen in four of the six study patients with sustained improvement throughout six months of study, Mayberg said.

While her results are promising, Mayberg cautioned deep brain stimulation is in the experimental stage. Many more studies must replicate the findings and more work needs to be done to determine the subtypes of depression that affect different people to determine under what conditions deep brain stimulation would be appropriate treatment.

But her research to date indicates the brain pacemaker has the potential to offer a new treatment option that neither damages the brain nor causes side effects.

Amanda Smith, executive director of the Pinellas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, was impressed.

‘This is an area of incredible growth and potential for life-changing treatment for people who are not able to be helped with anti-depressants,’ Smith said.

Saturday evening, Toulmin was presented with the NARSAD Luminary Award at the annual gala dinner for her support of mental health research.

Other presenters at Saturday’s symposium included Dr. Alexander Glassman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, who spoke on the latest research linking depression with cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Dolores Malaspina, chairwoman of the Department of Psychiatry at New York University, presented her research findings on the risk factors for schizophrenia.

Dr. Herbert Y. Meltzer, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University, reviewed new approaches to drug treatment for schizophrenia.

Mary Ruiz, chief executive director of Manatee Glens, Bradenton’s mental health hospital, was encouraged by what she heard.

‘We do all of these fundraisers and now we are seeing the results,’ Ruiz said. ‘It gives us hope. The brain is the last frontier and these scientists are the pioneers.’

Since 1987, NARSAD has awarded more than 9 million to fund mental health research. Grants have been given to 2,284 scientists at 347 universities and teaching hospitals throughout the United States and 25 other countries.

For more information and to participate, contact the local chapter through

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049 or at

Mental health in America

An estimated 22.1 percent of Americans ages 18 and older – about 1 in 5 adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

Approximately 2.2 million American adults have schizophrenia in a given year.

Approximately 18.8 million American adults have a depressive disorder in a given year.

Bipolar disorder affects approximately 2.3 million American adults, or about 1.2 percent of the U.S. population ages 18 and older in a given year.

– Source: NARSAD

Copyright © 2007 Bradenton Herald, All Rights Reserved.

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