Depression affects around 350 million people in the world. Although a treatable illness, many people feel as if there is no way out. Anti-depressants, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) are all well-known treatments for depression and are brilliant methods that help people cope with, or even cure, their mental illness. However, no two people are affected the same way by depression, meaning there isn’t one single treatment that’s deemed effective for all cases. Many people find themselves relapsing or even in the same state after using tablets, CBT or ECT.
Luckily, a treatment has been developed for when these more conventional methods are all unsuccessful. Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) has been used to treat epilepsy and is now being used to help those suffering from depression.
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The new treatment consists of a small, battery-powered device that is inserted under the skin on your neck. From there, it emits small pulses of weak electrical current which stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the longest cranial nerves and ‘commands unconscious body procedures, such as keeping the heart rate constant and controlling food digestion.’ Patients are under general or local anaesthetic during the procedure and a small incision is made on the left side of the neck. ‘A stimulator electrode is cuffed around the nerve and the leads of the stimulator electrode are tunnelled subcutaneously to the left chest wall and attached to a pulse generator unit, which is implanted into a subcutaneous pocket.’
Although research has proven that VSN can relieve and cure depression, doctors still aren’t completely sure how the results are achieved. Professor Hamish McAllister-Williams said ‘we don’t know exactly how lots of treatments work in psychiatry, including antidepressant drugs. I’m more interested in whether something works and, in the case of VNS, I’m persuaded that it does.’ What we do know is that you can, directly and indirectly, stimulate your vagus nerve. Indirectly stimulating your vagus nerve, which can be done through small actions such as deep breathing, is proven to reduce stress. If we can reduce stress through indirect stimulation, it then goes without saying that direct stimulation could help those with depression.
It all sounds pretty fab, a small op that cures severe, treatment-resistant depression, but everything comes with a price. In fact, VSN is incredibly difficult to get a hold of in the U.K. Each device costs £10,000 and lasts for 10 years, and an individual funding request must be made by your doctor or specialist. On top of this, there are several side effects that could be experienced. If fitted with a VSN implant, you could suffer from hoarseness as the nerve that serves the voice box is joined to the vagus nerve. Other side effects include shortness of breath, chest pain and developing a cough. The only other main concern is that as mentioned earlier, doctors don’t know how VSN exactly works, and with ignorance comes slight risk.
Despite the side effects, VSN is a first for mental illness. It may take 6 months to notice it’s full affects however research demonstrates that the op, price and wait is worth it. Doctors do stress that VSN should be used as a ‘last chance’ and only after all other options of treatment have been tried and tested. If a simple, small, electronic implant can cure the life-threatening burden that is severe depression, the future of medical technology is exciting.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.