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Matters Of The Mind: Innovations In Mental Illness Treatment

BOSTON (CBS) – A push by the military to find mental health treatment for men and women returning from war is leading to the biggest surge of research in decades.

Massachusetts General Hospital researchers received a $30 million grant from a defense agency to create an implantable brain device that deep stimulates parts of the brain not functioning properly, specifically in people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury or major depression.

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"What we're trying to do is provide very targeted therapy to just particular parts of the brain without involving the rest," said Dr. Emad Eskandar, a neurosurgeon at MGH and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Eskandar and the team of 50 scientists working on the device have made significant progress since receiving the grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) a year ago, as part of President Obama's BRAIN Initiative. The goal is to have it FDA-approved and ready for minimally-invasive surgery within three years.

An aggressive timeline is a hallmark of research supported by DARPA. The group is credited with inventing GPS for military purposes but when released to the public, the applications were tremendous. That's the model the MGH researchers are hoping their device can mimic.

"My first thought was this is tremendously exciting that they're going to adequately resource a large project like this to try to achieve the object," said Dr. Darin Dougherty, the Director of Neurotherapeutics at MGH. "That almost never happens. Usually treatment innovations are small abd piecemealed."

Across the Charles River, Dr. Ki Goosens, an investigator at the McGovern Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is hoping her research on a hormone called ghrelin might one day lead to vaccine for PTSD.

"One of the things that our work shows is that increase in ghrelin is really critical for making you vulnerable to having very strong, fearful memories if you're exposed to a trauma," said Dr. Goosens.

The vaccine would not make a person fearless. Instead it would only block the residual mental health consequences brought on by a build-up of ghrelin.

"The person can still experience that. They will still have memories, in fact, of the trauma, of their bad experience, of their stressful experience but what they won't do is experience PTSD," said Dr. Goosens.

Her research is also supported in part by DARPA, as well as the U.S. Army Research Office. She says there are drugs already available to suppress ghrelin because pharmaceutical companies hoped they would help in the fight against obesity. The pills developed were safe but relatively ineffective for that purpose. Dr. Goosens hopes her research can find a way to repurpose those chemicals into a PTSD vaccine.

"Mental illness as a class of diseases really are lacking in sort new innovative treatments," says Dr. Goosens. "If we can pick even just one mental illness and improve the outcome for people who suffer from it, I'd be happy."

For more information on finding help, please see this reporter's notebook.

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