WSJ Looks at Cutting-Edge Research on New Depression Treatments

The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating article this week about cutting-edge research on depression: To Treat Depression, a New Approach Tries Training the Brain. Several new approaches, in fact. The article was written by Andrea Petersen.

The WSJ sometimes puts articles behind a pay wall. Sometimes their pay wall goes up and down. For now at least, this article appears to be freely available.

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Petersen mentions two common depression treatments, antidepressant drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy, before exploring various new experimental treatments. First up, “cognitive control training, or CCT, which consists of two 15-minute exercises”:

In the first, patients are told to add a series of numbers following a specific set of rules. This task has been shown to activate the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in both emotion regulation and executive control, or “voluntarily thinking about what you want to when you want to,” says Dr. Siegle, who developed CCT. This section of the brain tends to be underactive in depressed people and may contribute to rumination, that endless loop of negative thinking that often plagues them.

Another part of CCT has patients listening to audio of birds chirping. The aim is to help people direct their attention to these external sounds instead of their own thoughts.

Another new treatment showing promise: “transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, of the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, where a gentle electric current is directed into the brain via electrodes placed on the scalp.” (That sounds similar but not identical to “transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)”, which already has clinics in most large cities.)

One research study in Australia combined CCT and tDCS.

A third area of experimental treatments includes “Cognitive Bias Modification-Interpretation (CBM-I)”, which “aims to counteract the tendency of depressed people to interpret ambiguous situations in a negative way”; and “attention bias modification”, which targets the fact that “depressed people have difficulty disengaging their attention from negative emotional stimuli”.

Whether these treatments will have much impact against depression remains to be seen. “Cognitive control training” and the varieties of “bias modification” could become part of the broader toolkit of cognitive-oriented therapists. The idea of applying electric current into the brain freaks me out just a little, but I try to keep an open mind about new science.

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