Laura Soloway tried to end her own life for the first time when she was 12, using her childhood chemistry set. She remembers lining up all the bottles that read “fatal if swallowed,” but she couldn’t open their childproof caps. She tried again at age 18 and was rushed to the emergency room by her parents.
After years in and out of hospitals and on and off various medications, Soloway and her doctors finally settled on a cocktail of drugs that kept her stable. But, she says, “it worked just enough to keep me functional. I never felt like I could ever really be happy about anything or even be extremely sad about anything. I was just a zombie sleepwalking.”
It wasn’t until she was 40 that Soloway found a better solution for her depression: transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The procedure involves zapping the brain through the skull using a high-powered magnetic burst. After three weeks of the treatment, Soloway says she no longer considered suicide.
“I constantly had this thought in the back of my head that if I swerve the car this way, I’ll die, and that’ll be fine,” she says. “It wasn’t until after TMS when that thought was gone.”
For many people like Soloway, medication does not adequately control their disease. It’s estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of people with depression don’t respond to available treatments. In return, doctors are turning to new technology that builds on an old idea — that altering patterns of brain activity using electricity or magnetic stimulation can treat psychiatric and neurological disorders.
Like most complex machines, your brain runs on electricity. Neurons communicate with each other through electrical and chemical signals; adding high or low amounts of electricity to the brain can make these neurons more or less likely to fire. By changing whether or not a neuron releases its electrochemical pulse, scientists can alter the brain’s overall connectivity, strengthening pathways between some neurons while suppressing connections in other areas. Shocking the brain in this way can disrupt harmful patterns of activity associated with depression, block pain signals from the spinal cord, or stop dysfunctional electrical firing during a seizure.
“I constantly had this thought in the back of my head that if I swerve the car this way, I’ll die, and that’ll be fine.”
Electrically stimulating the body is not new. Pacemakers that monitor and zap heart muscles through electrodes have been used for decades and saved millions of lives. In the brain, psychiatrists in the 1960s used electroconvulsive therapy to treat severe depression. The practice fell out of favor due to its potentially severe side effects, but the therapy is still considered effective at improving treatment-resistant depression, and it is used — with better safety measures — in some extreme cases today.
Newer brain-stimulating therapies are much more precise in both the location and intensity of the electrical current. And as research continues, neuromodulation, as the field is called, has become smarter, less intrusive, and more personalized.