The secret to happiness? A microchip in the brain

Could a microchip in the brain be the key to happiness? The experiment on a woman suffering from depression could be the first of a long series

The first study on personalized brain stimulation has been published in Nature Medicine: the technology, which involves the implantation of a special microchip in the brain of patients, would be able to treat with great success some cases of severe depression.

This is the case of Sarah, one of the three people so far subjected to the experiment: the 38-year-old, who has been suffering for some years from a severe form of depression that did not seem to respond to treatment, is now well. Could the secret to happiness be a microchip in the brain?

The first experiment: Sarah

Sarah was the first to take part in the experiment, carried out by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. Doctors surgically implanted a small battery-powered chip in the woman's brain, similar to a "brain pacemaker," as some call it.

The device is capable of detecting patterns in neural activity that correspond to peaks of sadness in the patient's brain, and sending electrical impulses that can keep the processes that cause depression at bay.

Only 12 days after the device was started, in August 2020, Sarah's situation already indicated a complete remission of the disease, the researchers report.

"It was like it gradually changed my view of the world," Sarah, whose last name remains anonymous, told the New York Times. "The device kept my depression at bay, allowing me to rebuild my life."

Sarah's is the first documented case in which deep brain stimulation appears to treat depression. Already used to treat Parkinson's disease, deep stimulation is not yet a licensed practice in medicine because so far the results have proved inconsistent.

The results of the new experiment could pave the way for a new generation of studies, already involving dozens of teams around the world.

How the Brain Pacemaker Works

If deep stimulation technology had not yet yielded the results hoped for, the San Francisco researchers comment, it was because full customization of treatments had not yet been achieved.

"One person's disorder may be very different from another's," said Dr. Katherine Scangos, one of the authors of Sarah's case report.

The microchips were then implanted in two specific regions of Sarah's brain, after careful mapping of her brain activity. Sarah recalls that during the ten days her brain was subjected to various stimuli to locate the chip's site, she found herself laughing out loud, the first time she had laughed spontaneously in years.

"It was the first time I laughed spontaneously in five years," she recalls.

The exploratory phase led researchers to place two microchips in Sarah's brain, in two particular locations involved with the origin of her depressive thoughts. One was placed in the ventral striatum, which is involved in emotions and the reward mechanism, while the other was placed near the amygdala.

While the first chip proved able to "turn off" the nerve stimuli that led Sarah to depression, the second chip is able to "predict how much more symptoms will become present," says Dr. Scangos.

Unlike other deep brain stimulation implants, Sarah's brain pacemaker does not deliver continuous stimulation, but is programmed to release a six-second stimulus every time it recognizes depression-related activity.

Sarah today, just over a year after the implant, is back living on her own, enrolled in college again and taking care of her family. "I feel present," says the patient, who also says she is able to develop an emotional distance from bad thoughts.

Dr. Chang, among the study's authors, believes the incredible results of the experiment performed on Sarah could help a large number of people, and cure different types of diseases, as well as pave the way for new, less invasive intervention techniques. "Our job now," say the scientists, "is to identify which patients to subject to this type of intervention."