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New Treatment for Depression?

--Despite the revolution in anti-depressant drugs, as many as 3 million Americans find these drugs don't work for them and nothing else does, either. Now, there may be another option. Medical correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.

Tucker Davis knows what it feels like to be going under and gasping for air. Not because he's a scuba instructor, but because he's suffered severe depression much of his life.

"There was no future to my life. I was just a burden on everybody and had no reason to be here," says Davis.

Today Davis sees many reasons, thanks to an experimental treatment for depression--a tiny little device that psychiatrists like John Barry believe has great potential.


How it works

"This is the vagal nerve stimulator," says Barry. "Its very similar to a cardiac pacemaker in the sense that it will stimulate in a rhythmic fashion the left vagus nerve."

Doctors believe the left vagus nerve controls mood centers in the brain. When the device is installed, wires wrap around it and deliver an electrical pulse that is programmed by a computer.

After having the device surgically implanted in his chest wall, Davis felt better within about 4 months, and the only side effect being a disruption of speech. That's because the vagus nerve also affects the larynx.

The device has been used for years to treat epilepsy, but doctors discovered that epileptic patients were reporting vast improvements in mood--whether or not their epilepsy got better--so the idea was born to try it for depression.


Potential breakthrough

Barry says it would be a tremendous breakthrough if it works.

Elizabeth Schaeffer is hoping to try the device since 30 drugs have failed her, and she now relies on electric shock treatment every 3 to 5 months to control her depression. But electric shock often robs the brain of memories, and she is looking for anything new.

"It would be wonderful to have something there that worked consistently," says Schaeffer.

The vagus nerve stimulator is not for everyone. Nationwide trials are looking at people with chronic untreatable depression--people like Elizabeth Schaeffer and Tucker Davis who until now had little hope for relief.

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