- Amber Pearson, 34, from Oregon, suffered severe OCD and epilepsy
- Her implant sends out electrical pulses to reset abnormal brain circuits
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A band-aid-sized brain implant has cured a woman’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and epilepsy.
Amber Pearson, 34, from Albany in Oregon, had suffered severe OCD since high school and spent eight hours a day checking her doors and windows were locked and her stove was off, plus a hand-washing procedure that left them raw and bleeding. She also developed epilepsy in her 20s.
The implant sits in the skull and has wires that are connected to the brain. When it detects brain patterns that signal the start of a seizure or compulsive thoughts, the device sends electrical pulses to the regions, shutting down unwanted neural activity.
The treatment is thought to reset abnormal brain circuits, similar to how a pacemaker regulates a heart.
Oregon Health & Science University neurosurgeon Dr Ahmed Raslan and patient Amber Pearson
DBS is not a new treatment and was first approved by the FDA to control tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease in 1997.
In 2019, Ms Pearson underwent an experimental brain surgery at Oregon Health & Science University.
OCD affects 2.5 million American adults. The term is overused in everyday life, but its clinical definition is when a person experiences uncontrollable and recurring thoughts, known as obsessions, and engages in repetitive behaviors, known as compulsions, or both.
It usually begins in late childhood or early adolescence. Experts are unsure of the specific cause of OCD, but both genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a role.
The OCD meant Ms Pearson struggled to live a normal life, as she was so scared of food contamination that she could not eat next to other people, even her family.
In her 20s, after developing epilepsy, she had a particularly bad seizure that caused her to lose consciousness.
People with epilepsy are more likely to be affected by OCD, but experts are not entirely sure why this is. It is thought that seizures may cause damage to the brain that can lead to changes in behavioral patterns, potentially causing OCD.
Doctors then decided to treat her with deep brain stimulation (DBS) after she tried therapy and medication, which had no effect.
Deep brain stimulation is a procedure that involves implanting a device to deliver electrical pulses to the brain.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows DBS to be used for OCD as a last resort.
Reports indicate that more than 300 OCD patients had undergone surgery for DBS implantation up to 2021.
Ms Pearson told Wired: ‘Every decision I made was based on my OCD. It was always in the back of my mind.’
The research, published in the journal Neuron this month, documented how a medical team used a single 1.2-inch-long electrode adjusted to detect her unique brain signals to control both her epilepsy and OCD.
The device they used for Ms Pearson is responsive, meaning it only delivers jolts of electricity when it detects irregular patterns in her brain that signal the start of a seizure or compulsive thoughts.
Responsive DBS has already been used to treat epilepsy, but Ms Pearson’s case is the first time it has been used for OCD, as well as to treat two conditions at the same time.
Ms Pearon’s seizures were being set off in a part of the brain called the insula.
Her neurosurgeon, Dr Ahmed Raslan, aimed to target a small region in the insula, as well as the ventral striatum, which is positioned just above and behind the eyes.
The ventral striatum includes the nucleus accumbens – part of the brain linked to motivation and action, and compulsive urges.
Dr Raslan said: ‘It was an area that could be targeted with the same electrode.’
The device is manufactured by a company called NeuroPace, based in California.
While other electrodes used for deep brain stimulation only send out electrical pulses, NeuroPace’s gathers brain signals and only emits electricity when it has been programmed to respond to a trigger.
Ms Pearson used to spend up to eight hours a day performing compulsions such as handwashing and checking her stove was off. Now, she said it is more like 30 minutes.
Ms Pearson said: ‘Now I rarely worry about what’s going on at my house while I’m away. I’m noticing fewer obsessions and compulsions all the time.
‘I’ve been able to form healthier relationships with the people in my life.’