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Everything to Know About Brain Stimulation Therapies for Mental Health By Claire Gillespie 11/3/18

When you hear the words “electroconvulsive therapy,” you might picture the scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, is subjected to barbaric, unjustified shock treatment as a punishment rather than as a mental health therapy. Cultural depictions like this have attached a stigma to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other brain stimulation treatments, but the reality is quite different. For starters, people getting ECT are sedated—Randle wasn’t—to prevent them from feeling any pain. Instead, ECT and other brain stimulation therapies are used today to relieve the emotional pain that can come with conditions like depression.

It’s estimated that around 30 percent of people with depression don’t respond to typical antidepressants. This is known as treatment-resistant depression, and brain stimulation therapies can be life-changing for people who experience it.

“Brain stimulation therapies involve the application of [electric] energy over specific brain regions to modulate the function of neural circuits,” Joshua Berman, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells SELF. This can help alleviate symptoms of depression or other mental illnesses that aren’t responding to typical treatments, such as bipolar disorder.


The five main types of brain stimulation therapies used to treat mental illness are electroconvulsive therapy, vagus nerve stimulation, deep brain stimulation, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, and magnetic seizure therapy. Let’s explore what they are, how they work, and their potential risks.


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