So I browsed through the glossy pages, looking for something to catch my eye. Then, on page 36, there it was...
A pacemaker for your brain? Electric brain stimulation may give hope to people with unremitting depression
Oooh. Sounded promising, so I gave it my full attention. Keep in mind that this was in the "Science Watch" section. The article begins:
It's about the size of the letter "o" in this sentence and may have the power to lift deep, unrelenting depression.
OK, there's the attention-grabber. It then goes on to describe deep brain stimulation (DBS). Before long, I ran across:
Since 2005, more than 60 people worldwide have received DBS for treatment-resistant mood disorders. For about 60 percent of them, there's a "striking improvement in their symptoms of depression," says Andres Lozano, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto who performs DBS surgery.
Well, that practically screams "valid scientific findings," asking a surgeon if his technique works. What was he gonna say, "Nah, I think DBS is a bunch of hooey. I only do it because it pays really well." I'm willing to bet that physicians who practiced bloodletting were also quite confident that the majority of their patients showed "striking improvement," which is why we conduct controlled trials rather than rely on subjective opinion. Later in the article, the author notes that the results from DBS are "dramatic and promising." The author also notes that
A number of other behavioral and mood disorders might also benefit from DBS. Benjamin Greenberg, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at Brown University in Providence, R.I., is using DBS to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, with success rates similar to [Helen] Mayberg's and Lozano's. Also similar is Greenberg's claim that OCD people who've had DBS are then able to tolerate and respond to behavioral therapy.
This broad success leads Mayberg to believe that DBS is establishing itself as an important tool for treating disorders that otherwise won't budge.
OK, so Lozano claims that 60% of people make "striking improvement"; what about others? As mentioned above, Helen Mayberg has done some research on this topic. The article describes one of her studies. Here comes the most convincing evidence I've ever witnessed:
The initial trial included six people who met diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. The two researchers and their colleagues implanted electrodes in the white matter adjacent to their patients' subgenual cingulate cortexes and fired up their pacemakers. All the patients, who were awake during the procedure, reported a "sudden calmness or lightness," Mayberg and Lozano reported in the paper.
The researchers followed up with the patients by administering monthly depression scales. After six months, four of the six showed significantly fewer depressive symptoms. To make sure they weren't getting a placebo effect, Mayberg and Lozano secretly switched off the electrodes in their best-responding patient. After about two weeks, the patient's scores began to drop. After about a month, his depressive symptoms had returned. The researchers switched it back on and six weeks later he was back up to non-depressive levels.
So the author of the article, based on the subjective opinion of a psychiatrist and a neurosurgeon, along with and an uncontrolled study of six people concludes that DBS:
- Has shown "broad success"
- "A number of other behavioral and mood disorders might also benefit from DBS"
- "May have the power to lift deep, unrelenting depression"
- Has shown "dramatic and promising" results
The author threw in a few caveats about side effects (though he essentially gave it a clean bill of health), and also noted that DBS should be reserved for patients with longstanding depression and who have not shown positive results with other treatments. So it stopped short of being a blanket endorsement of DBS, yet it did really make it sound like a fantastic treatment for longstanding depression despite the very meager evidence cited in its support. I often complain about poorly designed studies, suppression of negative data, or misinterpreted results leading to drugs being touted as unrealistically safe and effective. But this article shows that it doesn't necessarily take drug company involvement to pimp a treatment well beyond the scientific evidence.
For all I know, DBS may turn out to be The Holy Grail in treating depression of all shapes and sizes. I cast no aspersions on the researchers mentioned in the article, as searching for ways to treat seemingly intractable cases of depression is doing God's work. But the writer did a horrendous job of overblowing the evidence in favor of DBS. This kind of article feeds the popular notion that psychologists are a bunch of flakes who know nothing about science. The APA Monitor can do much better than this.