There was a breakthrough in our treatment of depression — and nobody noticed

The recent TGA-approval of a new depression treatment marks a historical shift in Australian healthcare.

A Scientific American Mind article from 2013 portrays a futurist scene, in which a migraine-sufferer walks into a pharmacy and (instead of receiving medication) is given a cap that generates tiny electrical currents to alleviate their pain.

The article reads like science fiction, suggesting that “electroceuticals” will eventually become common treatments for disorders like depression, brain injury, and chronic pain.

But in Australia, this futuristic story is no longer fiction. A few weeks ago, Soterix Medical (a biomedical engineering company based in New York) received TGA approval to begin administering this treatment to patients suffering from depression. Although this was entirely missed by the Australian media, this represents a huge shift in how we treat brain disorders in Australia.

Researchers can apply tiny electrical current to a person’s head to modify the underlying brain activity. By placing the electrodes in different locations, researchers are able to stimulate different brain regions and achieve different results.

The approved treatment is called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and has been all over the press in recent years. The short explanation is that you can use tiny electrical currents to non-invasively and painlessly rewire the brain; both to treat brain disorders and to change brain activity in healthy people.

Although this was not the first tDCS device to receive approval in Australia (Sooma tDCS was approved mid-2016), Soterix Medical has been the primary driving force in getting this technology from clinical trials to primary care in US and Europe. It is probably unsurprising then that the co-founder of Soterix Medical, Marom Bikson, was an author of the Scientific American Mind article.

We’re still a few years off from being able to slap on a cap at the pharmacist and become immediately pain-free (the devices can only be operated by a clinician, and researchers are still working out how to administer the treatment remotely). But the recent approval of brain stimulation devices marks a hugely important shift in Australian healthcare.

The TGA-approved treatment devices are still large and require a clinician to operate, so we’re still a long way off the scene described in Scientific American Mind.