Exploring the pros and cons behind psychiatric treatments in addition to the development of the wirelessly charged brain implant to treat the same.

Ananya Dua

2020 saw a new paradigm for health emerging. Movies, TV shows and celebrities raised awareness for mental health, helping de-stigmatize psychiatric disorders. Today, the world continues to move to a more cognizant place as the treatments evolve with the digital age to help people cope efficiently and safely.

Medication, for one, has been a popular recourse for individuals battling illnesses such as anxiety or depression since the 1950s. Commonly known as “drug therapy,” this practice began with a drug named Thorazine. While mental disorders can be attributed to a variety of factors, one of the most common is the excess production of dopamine. Thorazine worked to combat this very cause; it proved as an antagonist to correct this overproduction. A majority of medication today acts similarly to how it did multiple decades ago—correcting imbalanced brain chemistry to alleviate symptoms. Today, however, they have diversified and are commonly divided into five main categories—anti-anxiety agents, antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and stimulants—and often work in combination to help individuals.

Psychotropic drugs work to regulate mood by either increasing or decreasing the production of substances such as dopamine by introducing others. Consequently, due to their nature of work, prolonged use of medication exposes the brain to toxins, leading to irreversible brain damage in some cases. Additionally, although drug therapy is widely used, only fifty percent of patients note feeling significantly better, according to the National Health Institute. Many patients have instead reported an increase in suicidal thoughts, questioning the safety of this popular option, especially now, as the overdose rate for treatments drugs has increased nearly five-fold since the 2000s.

It is also vital to keep in mind that at the end of the day, medication is only treating the symptoms of the psychiatric disorders — not the underlying cause behind it. Annie Chen, co-president of the MV Neuroscience club voices a similar concern regarding the long-term viability of this option. “Medication helps people temporarily feel better; it doesn’t help them cope with the trauma or neglect that might have inflicted such a disorder,” she says. 

Thus, for many, medication is just a stepping stone to another sought-after option — one that can help them eradicate the cause — psychotherapy. Grounded in dialogue, it provides a supportive environment that allows individuals to talk openly about their fears and struggles with someone neutral and nonjudgmental. Although the roots of this treatment can be traced back to the 9th-century Persian empire, therapy has reached the peak of its popularity today, with an almost 40% increase in the number of psychotherapy patients this decade compared to the last.

However, while therapy has proven helpful for a few, independent researchers have uncovered possible flaws with this option. A particular study by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign reported that around 17% of people who have been in therapy seem to show negative changes in personality including strains in relationships and deteriorated social skills, in comparison to the 48% of people who saw improvement in their condition with psychotherapy.

Additionally, psychotherapy typically takes longer than drug therapy to produce benefits that are noticeable to the person receiving treatment. Patients report around 10 weeks or longer for psychotherapy, compared with four to six weeks for medication, to see a real benefit. 

Each session of therapy also comes at a cost of around $150 for 45 minutes — making it a privilege for many — as most health insurance plans do not cover a majority of the costs. Nearly 20.7% of adults in America who live with mental illnesses are uninsured, making it nearly impossible for them to seek the help they need due to the huge amounts of money they have to shell out regularly for therapy.

Recognizing the need to move with the digital evolution of recent times, researchers and collaborators from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have engineered a tiny brain implant that can be wirelessly recharged from outside the body to control the brain circuits for long periods without battery replacement. The device is constructed out of ultra-soft and bio-compliant polymers to help provide long-term compatibility with tissue and gives hope as a more up-to-date treatment option for psychiatric disorders.

This initiative led by Professor Jae-Woong Jeong is a step forward from the wireless head-mounted implant neural device he developed in 2019. The new, upgraded version is a fully implantable, soft optoelectronic system that can be remotely and selectively controlled by a smartphone to (1) deliver a controlled amount of medication to the brain and (2) provide light stimulation to rectify brain chemistry and (3) curb possibilities of overdose.

Most devices with a similar goal require expensive and painful intermittent surgeries to replace discharged batteries. However, this device eliminates the need for surgeries due to 

a built-in circuit that integrates a wireless energy harvester with a coil antenna and a Bluetooth low-energy chip to generate electricity to keep the implant charged indefinitely.

Brain implants typically come at a cost of around $75,000 and are covered by most insurance providers. The maintenance and upkeep of the device, be it the battery replacement surgeries or device repairs that come with it, however, adds up to some serious costs that are not covered by insurance. Although the cost of this new implant is unknown, it can be concluded that it would come out to a great deal less than its peers, as it would significantly cut down on costs of intermittent surgeries, due to the self-charging design.

While this product is not yet accessible for human use, neuroscientists have successfully tested these implants in rats and demonstrated their ability to suppress cocaine-induced behavior in the rats after they were injected with cocaine. 

Professor of Physiology at Yonsei University’s College of Medicine, Jeong-Hoon Kim, believes that this product’s success could shape the future of treatments, and speaks on the potential of this implant. “The fact that we can control a specific behavior of animals stimulates a lot of imagination,” he says. “I believe that the same basic technology can be applied to various types of implants, including deep brain stimulators to reduce the burden on patients for long-term use within the body,”.

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