ATLANTA (WXIA) -- Feeling down sometimes is a normal part of life. But for people battling severe mental illness, the overwhelming emptiness and despair is all-encompassing and sometimes treatment just does not work.
But thanks to a team of doctors at Emory University's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and 17 participants in a clinical study, there's hope.
"For 20 years, I lived under this cloud of darkness and bleakness," explained Lisa, a 42-year old woman participating in a study about mental illness.
Half her life, Lisa has battled debilitating mental illness.
"When you suffer from depression, or any mental illness, all you can exist in, is that moment," Lisa said. "All you know is how terrible you're feeling."
That's where Dr. Helen Mayberg, her team, and an experimental treatment come in.
"Lisa is really the quintessential patient who has this kind of profound severe, treatment resistant depression she exhausted every possible treatment," Dr. Mayberg explained.
The study is about the impact deep brain stimulation, or DBS, can have on a patient. It uses high-frequency electrical stimulation.
"It's totally understandable that this sounds scary," Dr. Mayberg said.
Study participants were implanted with two thin wire electrodes.
They are placed "deep in the brain. There's one on each side," explained Dr. Mayberg as she showed us their placement.
They connect to a device that's implanted in the chest. It's similar to a pacemaker. A connection cable sends a precise electric current to a targeted part of the brain.
"That area seems to be a junction box that connects the brain stem, the pure emotional centers of the brain," Dr. Mayberg said.
Doctors had to determine which of the four contact points on the wiring might create a positive response. That means, Lisa had to communicate with doctors for much of the day-long surgery.
"It was a little scary. I only felt the initial incision. I felt them drilling my skull and every bone and tooth rattled in my body. But other than that, the brain feels no pain," the patient explained.
In fact, she felt hope.
"It is as clear as day in my mind. I felt optimism about the future," Lisa said.
Emory doctors are excited about the results, but admit the human brain is perplexing.
"This is at the very infancy, with this technology. We really don't know what we're doing to the brain," explained Mayberg. "The brain is an exquisitely but very complicated wiring diagram."
Two years post surgery, Lisa's in close contact with Dr. Mayberg and her colleagues since battery checks are essential.
She doesn't hide the scar; preferring people to ask about it.
"I wear it as a badge of courage," Lisa said.
Armed with that courage, hope and suicide attempts behind her, Lisa has entered what she calls her third chapter.
"I feel like I've lost so much time. And I feel like I have to race to catch up on it," Lisa said. "It does get better with the right treatment."
Emory University's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences says 90 percent of 17 patients in this clinical study have shown progress and are 'doing well' a couple of years post surgery.
To learn more:
Archives of General Psychiatry has additional information about this groundbreaking research. There's also more insight about DBS.
For information on available clinical trials, The National Institutes of Health has a large database. The identifier for this research is: NCT00367003
And, for details on Emory protocols, email: DBS@listserv.cc.emory.edu.