October 3, 2005
CONTACT: Suzanna Cisneros Martinez,

LUBBOCK – A device that was originally developed for epilepsy patients is now providing hope for those who suffer from depression. The Federal Drug Administration recently approved the use of a vagal nerve stimulator for patients suffering from depression.

According to the World Health Organization, depression is projected to become the leading cause of disability and the second leading contributor to the global burden of disease by the year 2020. Depression is common, affecting about 340 million people worldwide. Yet fewer than 25 percent of those affected receive effective treatment.

Walter Lajara-Nanson, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said depression has physical effects on both the body and the brain.

“If someone is clearly missing a limb most understand the need to treat the patient, yet with depression there tends to be a stigma,” Lajara said. “It is important to educate people that depression is an illness that must be treated, not a reflection of mental weakness.”

A person suffering from depression that has not had success with traditional treatments such as a combination of medications or counseling, is diagnosed as having Treatment Resistant Depression. Larjara adds that four out of 10 patients will not respond to medications or psychotherapy.

“There has not been any new treatment modality for depression in the last 70 years. This implant is a new beginning for the future treatment of mental illness,” Lajara said.

The surgeon makes two small incisions on the patient’s neck. A pacemaker is implanted in the left chest wall with the leadwire in the left vagal nerve. The vagal nerve or the “wondering nerve” connects your brain stem with your upper body, specifically a person’s lungs, heart and stomach. The nerve serves as conduit for relaying information to and from your central nervous system, carrying electrochemical signals up its tubing and depositing them directly into the patient’s cortex.
Lajara said the implant was originally used for implanting a small pacemaker into the vagal nerves of epileptics to see if the pulses would stop the seizures. With the study, researchers noticed many of the patients who suffered from depression improved. Four trials were launched to see how the implants would work for depression, particularly with those suffering from Treatment Resistant Depression.

“The patient receives stimulation every five minutes. The stimulant alters neurochemicals in the brain related to depression. The side effects are minimal such as coughing, discomfort in the neck, hoarseness when speaking. But overall, all are temporary,” Lajara said.

He added that in the last two decades there has been a biologic approach to studying and treating depression and with the technological advances there is now an impact on making treatment possible. Studies have shown that people continue to improve after two years after the implant is placed.

Lajara said a person does not have to feel sad to suffer from depression. Symptoms of depression also can include anhedonia, which is a lack of motivation or desire to do things one enjoys, feelings of guilt over simple issues, insomnia or too much sleep, fatigued or lack of energy, poor concentration or memory, changes in appetite, crying spells, hopelessness, low self-esteem and thoughts or preoccupation with death.

“Ask your doctor questions if you think you may suffer from depression. Treatment varies with each person. And if you suffer from Treatment Resistant Depression, technology now has offered new hope for treatment,” Lajara said.