Improved treatment for severe depression studied at MUSC - WCIV-TV | ABC News 4 - Charleston News, Sports, Weather

Improved treatment for severe depression studied at MUSC

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Dr. Baron Short volunteers as a patient to show how the FEAST method works. (Source: Dr. Baron Short) Dr. Baron Short volunteers as a patient to show how the FEAST method works. (Source: Dr. Baron Short)
(Source: Dr. Baron Short) (Source: Dr. Baron Short)

By Victoria Hansen
vhansen@abcnews4.com

CHARELSTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- He had stared it down for nearly a decade, but the widening hole only grew deeper and darker. Oliver* knew the depression he faced could one day consume him.

"I knew I was close to falling into the abyss. I was probably one foot in and had my other on a banana peel," he said.

Oliver was diagnosed with depression in 1998. The Johns Island native was living in New York at the time. He was prescribed Prozac.

"At that time, they were giving it away like candy," he recalled, but Oliver didn't feel comfortable with the medication or the diagnosis. "I was trying to deal with the stigma. I didn't want to be treated any differently."

That's why, even today, he has decided for this story to change his name.

Oliver stumbled through life until 2004. The man who struggled with happiness was suddenly so happy, it scared him.  

"I was experiencing the highest highs. There wasn't anything I couldn't do. I'd have all these grandiose ideas, start projects I'd never finish and go on spending binges," Oliver said.

But those fevered highs were followed by paralyzing lows.

"There were days I'd be so down and so sad I literally, physically would be frozen for days on end.  I could not get out of bed," he said.

It was then, he got a new diagnosis -- bipolar disorder.    

"Ultimately, it led to my decision to do something professionally. I got counseling and treatment. I took several medications," he said.

But something still wasn't right. Oliver just wasn't enjoying life.

"I wasn't getting any better and for a while there I wasn't getting any worse. Really, I was just unhappy and medicated," Oliver said.

Fast forward to 2011, and Oliver bottomed out.

"Thoughts of suicide were more prevalent, even to the point of planning and thinking about where and how to go about it," he said.

Oliver feared he couldn't save himself from the spiral. So with a suicide plan in place, he considered another, last ditch treatment option -- electro-convulsive therapy, or ECT.

"It takes everyone to, 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' You know, zapping your brain,"  said Dr. Baron Short, the Assistant Professor of the  Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Electro-convulsive therapy has been around since the 1940s. Electrodes are put on the patient's scalp and finely controlled electric current is applied, causing a brief seizure in the brain.

"I liken it to turning the traffic lights back on inside the brain," said Short. "It eases congestion, making people move, think and feel better."

He says it stimulates the  brain, releasing  the same kinds of neurochemicals that antidepressants do. It's often used on patients with severe depression or manic episodes who don't respond to medication.

But there can be side effects like confusion and memory loss. There are also the risks associated with being under anesthesia.

"You know, I like to say cars been around a long time and they've  gotten more efficient and safer," said Short.

Short has been part of a new study looking at a more precise form of ECT called FEAST, or Focal Electrically Administered Seizure Therapy.

"It targets more of the front brain that is associated with the antidepressant effect," said Short.  "It also spares the temporal lobes, which are more associated with memory."

Basically, it's thought to be a more precisely targeted treatment with fewer side effects. But does it work? So far the research at MUSC looks good.

"It used to take people hours to reorient after a treatment, to remember their name, place or date of birth." said Short. "With this, we're looking at roughly five-and-a-half minutes."

The study is going so well MUSC is trying to get more federal funding to expand it.

But more study isn't needed for Oliver.

"For the first time, I'm excited about what the next day will bring," said Oliver.

Oliver had 12 treatments beginning in February. He says he initially had some short-term memory loss, but would trade that any day for getting his life back.

"It's sort of like the Rip Van Winkle effect, waking up, being able to feel happiness, joy, to laugh," he said.

At 50, Oliver is beginning life again.

*- Name changed to protect the identity of the patient.


  • Victoria Hansen

    Email: vhansen@abcnews4.com Reporter Profile




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