What If The Brain Had An On/Off Switch For Depression? Scientists May Have Found One

by Claudia Fisher

The human mind is powerful and mysterious. At once contained and vast, methodical and unpredictable, the brain continues to surprise us.

In one moment, your thoughts are linear and focused and, in the next, you hum an old song lyric; you dream about someone you saw once on the street; you feel pain but have no idea why.

It would be a miracle if humans had the capacity to control their minds completely, to eradicate any self-defeating negative emotions, like depression and body dysmorphia.

Although the mind's complexity and contradictions have made such a feat seem unattainable, researchers have long been on the pursuit, conducting experiments on the brain's emotional responses.

And recently, scientists at Cal Tech studying fear chanced upon an on/off switch in the brain.

It sounds too good to be true, and perhaps that's why they hadn't even considered this outcome at the start. But, as it so happened, their experiment yielded a switch deep within test-mice's brains to control appetite, and the animals stopped eating mid-chomp.

Revisiting a technique called optogenetics — which has been used in past research of brain processes related to emotions, like anxiety and fear — the scientists were able to use a blue light to manipulate a small set of neurons and accidentally interfered with hunger signals.

After using controls to rule out the many other potential explanations for the mice's altered course of action, such as being too shocked to continue eating, scientists concluded that the mice had indeed reacted to the anorexigenic (appetite-related) trigger.

Although the experiment may initially seem at the forefront of the next big weight-loss trend, manipulating the brain for such trite aesthetics pales in significance when compared to the experiment's profound implications.

In the video about the experiment, NY Times science writer Jim Gorman encourages you to imagine the possibilities:

While it doesn't make sense to fiddle with the brain just to lose a few pounds, what about life-threatening eating disorders? What if they could be treated with targeted-brain interventions?

In considering the psychological states associated with extreme eating disorders, the question also arises of what else could be turned on and off?

The specific neurons affected were in the amygdala -- where emotional responses are governed -- and the results will allow scientists to study the connection more specifically between appetite and emotions at the brain's circuit level.

Originally, the researchers were interested in investigating fear; the fact that they incidentally got another result substantiates how interconnected processing feelings is in the brain.

In the wake of Robin Williams' suicide, people have been actively campaigning for a more enlightened view of mental illness. Many are telling personal accounts of their own struggles, and speaking out against misguided judgments and unsubstantiated ideas about psychological problems.

While awareness and acceptance continue to grow, ideally more people will feel comfortable seeking help.

Unfortunately, psychiatry and medication aren't foolproof.

Many might have a general aversion to taking pills to alter their inner workings, but the skepticism is justified in that medication has, at times, proven to be ineffectual and even dangerous.

Ian Woods, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Ithaca College currently working on the relationship between genetics and stimuli that could trigger anxiety, explains:

If you look at current treatments for anxiety disorders, the approach is a bit like taking a sledgehammer to a mosquito. The treatments may work for anxiety, but they can have a lot of side effects.

He's doing research on zebrafish (apparently fish have similar brains to humans... encouraging) to hone in on better executed medications, but currently, the pharmaceutical aspect of mental health remains problematic.

David Healy, professor of psychiatry in Wales (and author of works such as "Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship Between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression" and "The Antidepressant Era") claims that SSRIs, a class of anti-depressant, target superficial symptoms, like nerves, rather than mitigate deep-rooted melancholia.

He even believes anti-depressants are sometimes the direct cause of suicide in people who weren't inclined to self-harm prior to being medicated.

So, here we are in the United States: There were 39,518 suicides, making it the 10th leading cause of death, and 713,000 hospital visits due to self-inflicted harm in 2011 (the most recent years for these data).

Psychotherapy doesn't really seem to cut it for many people.

But an "on/off" switch...

What could controlling the brain's neurological switchboard mean to the many who suffer from unmanageable thoughts and irrational compulsions?

What if the toxic tangle of self-hate and destructive habits could be stopped as simply as turning on a light? What if happiness and self-acceptance could come to those deprived of them as easily as breathing and blinking and sleeping?

Of course, there may be side effects, and it's still in an extremely primitive stage, but it's impossible not to be giddy about the possibilities.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It