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There are many effective treatments for anxiety disorders such as medications and psychotherapy, but some patients never experience full resolution of symptoms and are always in search for other, possibly better options such as deep brain stimulation.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical procedure that targets abnormal brain activity by using electrical currents. It was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1997 as a therapy for essential tremor and dystonia and later, in 2002, as a therapy for Parkinson's disease.

The technique uses a battery-operated surgical device known as implantable pulse generator (IPG) — which closely resembles a heart pacemaker — to bring electrical stimulation to certain areas of the brain.

The procedure consists of three main components:

  • The lead component, or an electrode – an insulated wire that’s very precisely implanted into the targeted part of the brain through a small hole made in the skull.
  • The extension – the wire that goes under the head and neck, to the shoulder.
  • The IPG – It’s normally implanted close to the collarbone, or rarely lower on the body.
This technique triggers blood flow, which helps to produce chemical reactions that release neurotransmitters that fix malfunctioning connections inside the brain. Researchers are currently exploring whether deep brain stimulation can be used to treat other ailments, especially mental conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Neurologist Helen Mayberg tried this technique on her severely depressed patients in 2003. She tried it on the part of the brain called subcallosal cingulate, or the area 25, the same part of the brain that responds well to the treatment with antidepressants. She hoped to get the same results by sending tiny current pulses to this area. Since 2005, a few smaller pilot studies have shown promising results, with 40 to 60 percent of people reacting well to the treatment. Besides Mayberg’s studies, a few other small studies have followed, but more research is needed.

Deep brain stimulation and anxiety disorders

Once everything is set in place, doctors send electrical impulses from the device into the brain to alleviate symptoms of various disorders of the nervous system. They can map out and target specific places in the brain using MRI and CT scans.

According to research, DBS can decrease severity of anxiety symptoms in three out of four treated patients.

To simplify the possible method of action: Scientist aim the device to the point in the brain called the accumbens nucleus – responsible for carrying the information flow between the amygdala and the other areas in the brain. Corrupted accumbens carries imbalanced or “corrupted” information that may lead to disorders such as anxiety or OCD. Deep brain stimulation is said to counteract such flow.

The method is considered relatively safe and minimally invasive. Besides its success in the treatment of various movement disorders, it has shown promising effects on several mental symptoms, including depression and anxiety in combination, and other refractory conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anorexia nervosa, habituation, Tourette’s syndrome, etc.

It’s important to mention that DBS, like most other brain procedures, comes with possible side-effects, and they include:

  • Postoperative delirium
  • Depression
  • Hypomania
  • Mania
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Apathy
  • Anxiety (ironic, right?)
  • Suicide

Luckily, most of these side effects, including anxiety, are rare and can be eliminated by changing some parameters such as pulse width, voltage, stimulus frequency, or duration of the treatment.

Neurostimulation treatments are constantly evolving as a possible solution for anxiety disorders, but they’re mostly recommended for patients that have treatment-resistant forms of anxiety disorder.

One form of neurostimulation called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic field to cause electric current through electromagnetic induction, showed particularly successful in the treatment of anxiety. The anxiolytic effect of this method is achieved by “taming” the hyperactive amygdala activity, similar to DBS.

The bottom line

Numerous people serve as proof that deep brain stimulation can transform lives when it comes to severe and fast progressing Parkinson’s disease, and other movement disorders. Although DBS sounds promising when it comes to many aspects of mental health as well, the technique is still relatively new and unexplored in this area, and large amount of studies are needed to determine the exact modes of action. Personally, I’d never undergo such treatment for anxiety alone unless it’s the best option available, with definite proof of its effectiveness.

There are many better treatment approaches for anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered the best and most effective treatment a person with anxiety disorder can get. Combination of various treatments and a healthy lifestyle can definitely help a person to feel better soon.

Some people decide to manage anxieties on their own, such as by using books, guided CBT from the internet, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, or something else. Let me say that battling the beast alone is hard and long-lasting process, and chances are that you’ll never succeed and see progress on your own. I wasted many years of my life waiting for it to pass, and I’d recommend you to seek professional help. Just consider professional help as an addition to your favorite coping strategies.

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