Ecstasy and Virtual Reality Cure Depression
Every other person in the 460 million suffering from depression is not helped by traditional medicines. But now they are getting help from an unexpected angle: Magic mushrooms, electrodes in the brain, gene therapy, and virtual travel can be the best weapon of the future against the common disease.
44 genes increase the risk of suffering from depression
Depression is likely due to a combination of inheritance and environment. A significant genetic analysis of more than 135,000 people with depression and 344,000 healthy people has now identified 44 genes that affect the risk of developing depression. Thirty of the risk genes were completely unknown to the researchers. By locating the genetic factors, researchers hope to be able to understand the interaction between inheritance and the environment better so that treatment can be tailored to the individual patient.
Research shows that depressed people often have a lower level of the neurotransmitter serotonin than healthy ones, and the most common antidepressant, SSRI, works by affecting the amount of serotonin. But only every other one is helped by the treatment.
Three useful tips for depression that work
Exercise, good night's sleep, and a healthy diet. These are the three tips for depression. A healthy lifestyle makes it harder for depression to gain a foothold according to several studies.
Exercise forms an important topic for the mood
15 minutes of hard strength training a day reduces depression symptoms by up to 26 percent. When we lift weights or run, we activate the muscle cells so that they better absorb and convert the amino acid tryptophan. It is used to form the substance serotonin, which plays a crucial role in our mood.
Sleep makes you more social
In one experiment, 18-person brains were scanned after one night of healthy sleep and one without sleep. It showed that the sleepless had higher activity in the amygdala, a brain area that is activated when we feel threatened, and low activity in areas that promote social engagement. Fear and social isolation can contribute to depression.
Healthy eating prevents inflammation reaction
Fat and sugar-rich diets increase the risk of inflammation in the body, and inflammations are associated with depression. A large study shows that we can prevent inflammation and thus reduce the risk of suffering from depression by eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
Scientists have decoded our mood swings by measuring the brain's electrical activity. Using advanced software, researchers were able to map the relationship between their brain activity and mood.
Psychedelic fungus imitates nerve signaling
People who suffer from depression lack serotonin in the brain. The psychedelic substance contained in “magic mushroom” can replace the important neurotransmitter.
Psychedelic mushrooms not only give you a rush – they can make depression easier.
In a trial at the Rigshospitalet in Denmark, psilocybin, the active substance in psilocybin fungi, led to a reduction in depressive symptoms in patients who had not experienced the effects of traditional antidepressant drugs.
Depression is associated with a lower level of neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, and the study showed that psilocybin can actually be part of the brain’s serotonin system.
In the experiments, researchers gave eight subjects different doses of psilocybin of 3 to 30 milligrams.
The first results revealed that psilocybin stimulates a particular serotonin receptor called 5-HT2A. Serotonin is found everywhere in the brain, but is mainly concentrated in the front brain, which controls, among other things, personality, mood, and social behavior.
Because psilocybin is chemically similar to serotonin, the psychedelic substance stimulates the same receptors, which increase the nerve signals and restore the interrupted connections.
British biotech company Compass Pathways will now test psilocybin for depression in a major trial involving 216 participants.
Ketamine speeds up the brain
Activity in parts of the brain increases when depression is treated with ketamine.
Depressed people have low activity in those parts of the brain that handle cognitive and emotional processes. Still, in trials where patients received ketamine, activity returned to a normal level just nine hours after the drug was taken.
While other antidepressants may take several months to produce an effect, after a few doses of ketamine, the patient will already know if the treatment has any effect.
In the spring of 2019, the US health authority approved ketamine for the treatment of depression. The approval came after more than 20 years of research, which shows that in many cases, the anesthetic can cure depression more effectively than traditional remedies.
Ketamine has now been launched in the US as a nasal spray under the name Spravato.
Ecstasy relieves the symptoms of severely depressed people
In large doses, the substance MDMA (“ecstasy”) can create a breeding ground for depression, but in small doses, the effect seems to be the opposite.
US researchers have cured 25 of a total of 28 patients with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) using small doses of MDMA. The disease is characterized by symptoms such as depression, anxiety and memory problems.
Brain scans of the patients showed that the substance attenuated the activity of the limbic system, which is of great importance for our emotional and fear reactions.
At the same time, the substance made sure that the brain was supplied with increased amounts of the signaling substances serotonin and oxytocin, which regulate, among other things, our mood and our ability to form in social relationships.
POWER IN THE BRAIN
Electric helmet restores communication
In each case, depression is cured after daily treatment with the help of a helmet that creates new nerve connections in the brain.
The brain’s ability to adapt – its plasticity – plays an important role in depression.
High plasticity means that the brain can form new brain cells, blood vessels, and connections between nerve cells. Still, in depressed people, plasticity has deteriorated because the nerve cells have poor communication.
A new treatment method called T-PEMF – transcranial pulsating electromagnetic fields – will now change.
The treatment is done with the help of a helmet with seven copper coils that form weak pulsating electromagnetic fields in the brain.
It causes the nerve cells to secrete more of the so-called growth factors and substances that they use to communicate. The result is that the brain forms new blood vessels and that the brain activity increases.
The helmet has so far been tested in six Danish hospitals.
About half of the participants’ depression was cured after a couple of months, during which they clamped it daily on the head and allowed the electrical impulses to increase brain activity for half an hour. Among the other half, the majority felt that the symptoms improved markedly.
Small electric shocks balance the depressed brain
The researchers have found five brain areas that are in an imbalance in depressed people. Targeted electric shocks in the brain can now relieve negative emotions.
Patients who have suffered from Parkinson’s disease or severe epilepsy have long been treated with inducted electrodes, which electrically stimulate the brain.
In 2018, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, USA, revealed that the method – called deep brain stimulation – can also cure depression.
Researchers from the University of Freiburg and the University Hospital in Bonn in Germany have recently shown that the small electric shocks not only have a positive effect in the short term.
In the trial, 16 patients, who had suffered from severe depression for 8-22 years, received two electrodes in the reward system in the central brain, where they were continuously stimulated for two months with weak current signals of up to ten volts.
All patients felt noticeably better about the treatment. Still, the most striking thing about the trial was that the participants felt that the depression was relieved even a year after the treatment.
Other treatments for depression, such as drugs and psychotherapy, often lose effectiveness over time.
The researchers behind the experiments are now working on developing an implant that can monitor activity in five different brain areas and adjust it as needed. The implant should be operated under the skull.
Gene manipulation repairs depressed brain in mice
Depression can shut down a gene that affects the ability of the nerves to signal. Now scientists have reactivated the gene.
Researchers from Augusta University in the United States have cured depression in mice by activating a certain gene in the brain.
Previous studies have shown that depression can shut down the SIRT1 gene, which promotes the ability of nerve cells to send signals into the brain’s prefrontal cortex.
Because this area is of great importance to our mood, personality, and social behavior, it can trigger depressive states if the nerve signals do not work optimally.
The researchers activated the gene in the mice by injecting the substance SRT2104 directly into the prefrontal cortex.
SRT2104 is a so-called SRT1 activator that activates the molecules of the specific gene and thus brings it back to life.
Subsequent observations of the mice showed that the depressive state had disappeared.
Researchers believe that this is probably because the activation of the SIRT1 gene recreates the damaged neuronal connections in the brain.
Visits in the virtual world bring joy
Virtual reality can give depressed people positive emotions. In trials where participants visited other worlds or comforted a child, their symptoms were alleviated.
One of the symptoms of depression is not feeling any joy or enthusiasm.
So far, researchers have had a tough time affecting this condition, called anhedonia, but attempts now suggest that virtual reality (VR) can open up the emotions.
In a 2019 trial, a group of depressed people were introduced to various virtual environments where, for example, they could dive at coral reefs or celebrate a victory for their favorite team. After 13 VR sessions, participants were happier and experienced fewer symptoms of anxiety and stress.
In another attempt, researchers from University College London, UK, let 15 depressed comfort a crying child in virtual reality.
After one month of three sessions a week, nine of the participants felt that the symptoms of their depression had been significantly reduced.