The stats are sobering, to state the least: More than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In 2015 alone, an estimated 16.1 million adults experienced at least one major depressive episode according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression is the most common cause of disability worldwide, and it doesn’t just affect adults—teen depression is also on the rise. Despite a wide variety of antidepressants, 10-20% of people suffering from depression have treatment-resistant depression.
But it’s not all doom and gloom: New treatments are one potential way to close the gap and provide much needed relief. From therapeutic video games to deep dives into the brain, researchers around the world are exploring new ways to treat depression. (Eat to keep your brain young and cut your risk for stroke and dementia with the natural tips in Prevention’s Ageless Brain.)
Video games may get a bad rap, but they can be a powerful tool against depression. A recent study from UC San Francisco And University of Washington found that a specifically designed game, called EVO, improved measures of depression in older adults. EVO targets the underlying cognitive control problems of depression in people with late-life depression like difficulty paying attention and using working memory. The researchers found that as cognitive function improves, so does mood and depression. The game performed as well as other common depressive therapy treatments in the small trial.
“Many of the older adults that were in the study were medically resistant to many of the drugs that were being prescribed for their depression, so doing a behavioral therapy that has no side effects like the drugs they are prescribed is incredibly appealing,” says Joaquin A. Anguera, PhD, the clinical program director at Neuroscape at UCSF and lead author on the study.
Other studies have also shown that therapeutic video games can be an effective treatment for depression. While there is still more research to be done, games like SuperBetter are widely available today and more appear to be on the way. “These types of tools are really interesting from the perspective that anybody could have access to their health care in the palm of their hand or in their pocket,” says Anguera.
Psychedelics like psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, have been popping up in the news lately after a resurgence of studies digging into their effects on clinical depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and other chronic conditions. The results so far for depression are promising.
A recent study in the journal of Biological Psychiatry found that psilocybin improved mood in healthy volunteers, while small studies from New York University and Johns Hopkins University both showed substantial, sustained decreases in depression in patients with terminal cancer. Despite generally small studies so far, the preliminary findings show that psychedelics like psilocybin may offer fast-acting relief and long-term benefits for people with depression.
We all know that inflammation can be damaging, but it may also increase your likelihood of depression. In 2013, a small study found that people who took anti-inflammatory drugs that are typically used to treat autoimmune diseases saw decreases in their symptoms of depression. Another small study from 2015 showed that clinically depressed patients had 30% more inflammation in the brain than healthy adults. However, it is still unclear if inflammation is the primary cause of depression or just a contributing factor. Significant research still needs to be done.
Despite its reputation as a party drug, ketamine has been shown to be a life-saving treatment for depression. Typical medications for depression can take up to eight weeks to start working. Ketamine, on the other hand, can reduce symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts in two hours. An on-going clinical trial is looking into ketamine’s effect on the brain and its ability to rapidly treat depression.
“We really need much better treatments for people who are currently in a suicidal crisis,” says Elizabeth Ballard, PhD, a staff scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who studies ketamine and suicide prevention. “Interventions such as [ketamine] could really represent a new way forward for treatment of depression and suicide risk.”
Despite the image you have in your mind, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is nothing like Frankenstein’s setup. ECT has vastly improved since it was first used in the United States more than 70 years ago. During ECT, a small electrical current is sent to the brain to cause a short seizure. The treatment only takes a few minutes to perform; however the patient is put under brief anesthesia that lasts an hour or so. Patients typically receive sessions three times a week for 2-4 weeks, and they usually begin to notice improvements after a week.
The treatment may provide relief for people with severe depression who have not responded to other depression treatments like medications and traditional talk therapy. But the therapy can cause negative side effects like confusion, temporary or long-term memory loss, heart problems, and headaches.
Deep brain stimulation
Much like ECT, deep brain stimulation uses electricity to target specific areas of the brain. While it was first developed as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease to reduce tremors and uncontrollable movements, deep brain stimulation is also being tested for treating depression. DBS is invasive—the treatment requires surgically placing a pair of electrodes into the brain and connecting them to a small generator that is implanted in the chest. However, it’s still an experimental procedure with unknown long-term side effects and benefits.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation
Typically used when other treatments have failed, transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magnetic fields to stimulate targeted nerve cells in the brain. The short, intense magnetic pulses generate an electric current to activate areas of the brain that are typically less active in people with depression, according to the Mayo Clinic. The treatment is noninvasive, but it is still early in its development and little is known about its long-term effects.