Deep-brain stimulation (DBS) is probably the most exciting emerging treatment in psychiatry. DBS is the use of high-frequency electrical current to alter the function of specific areas of the brain. Originally developed for Parkinson's disease, over the past five years DBS has been used experimentally in severe clinical depression, OCD, Tourette's syndrome, alcoholism, and more.
Reports of the effects have frequently been remarkable, but there have been few scientifically rigorous studies, and the number of psychiatric patients treated to date is just dozens. So the true usefulness of the technique is unclear. How DBS works is also a mystery. Even the most basic questions - such as whether high-frequency stimulation switches the brain "on" or "off" - are still being debated.
Recent data from rodents sheds some important light on the issue: Antidepressant-Like Effects of Medial Prefrontal Cortex Deep Brain Stimulation in Rats. The authors took rats, and implanted DBS electrodes in the infralimbic cortex. This area is part of the vmPFC. It's believed to be the rat equivalent of the human region BA25, the subgenual cingulate cortex, which is the most common target for DBS in depression. The current settings (100 microA, 130 Hz, 90 microsec) were chosen to be similar to the ones used in humans.
In a standard rat model of depression, the forced-swim test, infralimbic DBS exerted antidepressant-like effects. DBS was equally as effective as imipramine, a potent antidepressant, in terms of reducing "depression-like" behaviours, namely immobility.
This is not all that surprising. Almost everything which treats depression in humans also reduces immobility in this test (along with few things which don't treat it). Much more interesting is what did and did not block the effects of DBS in these rats.
First off, DBS worked even when the rat's infralimbic cortex had been destroyed by the toxin ibotenic acid. This strongly suggests that DBS does not work simply by activating the infralimbic cortex, even though this is where the electrodes were implanted.
Crucially, infralimbic lesions did not have an antidepressant effect per se, which also rules out the theory that DBS works by inactivating this region. (Infralimbic lesions produced by other methods did have a mild antidepressant effect, but it was smaller than the effect of DBS. This may still be important, however.)
What did block the effects of DBS was the depletion of serotonin (5HT). Serotonin is known to its friends as the brain's "happy chemical", although it's a bit more complicated than that. Most antidepressants target serotonin. And rats whose serotonin systems had been lesioned got no benefit from DBS in this study.
So this suggests that DBS might work by affecting serotonin, and indeed, DBS turned out to greatly increase serotonin release, even in a distant part of the brain (the hippocampus). Interestingly this lasted for nearly two hours after the electrodes were switched off.
Depletion of another neurotransmitter, noradrenaline, did not alter the effects of DBS.
Overall, it seems that infralimbic DBS works by increasing serotonin release, but that this is not because it activates or inactivates the infralimbic cortex itself. Rather, nearby structures must be involved. The most likely explanation is that DBS affects nearby white-matter tracts carrying signals between other areas of the brain; the infralimbic cortex might just happen to be "by the roadside". Many researchers believe that this is how DBS works in humans, but this is the first hard evidence for this.
Of course, evidence from rats is never all that hard when it comes to human mental illness. We need to know whether the same thing is true in people. As luck would have it, you can temporarily reduce human serotonin levels with a technique called acute tryptophan depletion This reverses the effects of antidepressants in many people. If this rat data is right, it should also temporarily reverse the benefits of DBS. Someone should do this experiment as soon as possible - I'd like to do it myself, but I'm British, and all the DBS research happens in America. Bah, humbug, old bean.
There's a couple of others things to note here. In other behavioural tests, infralimbic DBS also had antidepressant-like effects: it seemed to reduce anxiety, and it made rats more resistant to the stress of having electrical shocks (although only slightly.) Finally, DBS in another region, the striatum, had no antidepressant effect at all. That's a bit odd because DBS of the striatum does seem to treat depression in humans - but the part of the striatum targeted here, the caudate-putamen, is quite separate to the one targeted in human depression, the nucleus accumbens.
Hamani, C., Diwan, M., Macedo, C., Brandão, M., Shumake, J., Gonzalez-Lima, F., Raymond, R., Lozano, A., Fletcher, P., & Nobrega, J. (2009). Antidepressant-Like Effects of Medial Prefrontal Cortex Deep Brain Stimulation in Rats Biological Psychiatry DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.08.025