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Sparking Sadness

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It all started with a simple small electrode planted in the outer layer of a 44-old-woman’s brain. The scientists watched the electrodes, which acted as sensors, and listened for the first mumbles of the epileptic seizures.

The placement of the electrodes, a tad bit larger than a sesame seed, gave access to the patient’s brain. With the permission of the woman, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco started using the electrodes for more than listening. The scientists began igniting small electrical wildfires at different sections in the woman’s brain.

The majority of the electrical pulses went unnoticed by the patient, and the researches finally reached the effect they were looking for by targeting the area of the brain just behind the patients’ eyes. When they asked how the patient felt, the woman responded, “Calmer in my nerves.”

Along with the first patient, two other patients of different ages had positive reactions, and because of those reactions, bring researchers closer to a very intrepid goal: a device implanted into the brains of severely depressed to detect a looming crisis around the corner and literally zap the brain out of it.

The project, although farfetched, is “fundamental, pioneering, discovery neuroscience,” said Mark George, a neurologist and psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. George has been studying depression for 30 years, “It’s as if we are sending a spacecraft to the moon.”

With powerful computational methods, scientists have made serious amounts of progress, and have zeroed in on most key features of depressed brains. Those features include certain types of brain in specific locations, such as the one just behind and slightly above the eyes. Other researchers focus on how to correct the unsound brain activity that underlies depression.

When George began studying depression three decades ago, the doctor field was still being haunted by the theories of Sigmund Freud, whose excuse for the mental illness of depression was bad parenting and repressed anger. Soon after came the chemical imbalance concept, which said that the brain just needs a dash of the right chemical signal to fix itself. “It was the ‘brain is soup’ model,” George says.

“We have a very different view now,” George said. Thanks to advances in brain imaging, scientists see depression as a disorder of neural circuits-altered connections in between important brain regions can put people into a depressed state of mind. “We’ve started to explain the road map of depression.”

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Sparking Sadness