A Jolt to the System

This small electrical device may be the last hope for the chronically depressed

And for that single reason, she says of the device: "I'll never let them take it out."

She still worries, knows that she's becoming less independent, that one day her depression will win. Before its onslaught, she could handle life, the management of the businesses, the bowling alley, the casinos both here and abroad that she and her husband owned. That tough-minded person she once was, "that person is still inside," she says, her eyes teary, "but I can't do the things I used to." Each day, she sets a goal for herself. Today's: Vacuum before the reporter comes. Now divorced, living alone in a three-bedroom home, everything around her seems in place; antiques and intricate decor fill her home. The place seems tidy, but she says that's only because she barely moves. She knows, too. "It's dirty," she says, frowning. She often sits on the large easy chair, her television tuned to the TV Guide channel. By the time she's finished scrolling the list of programs, she's already forgotten what she's decided to watch, so the television remains on that station all day. That's her problem, she says: "CRS--Can't Remember Shit." She'll often lounge around for days on end in a nightgown. Today, though, she has managed to don makeup and a velvet shirt and pants. If she leaves her home, which is rare, it is to see her doctor, the one who recommended her for the VNS study.

Why some patients have responded better to VNS than others, no one can say for sure. "I can give you speculation," Rush says. "Depression probably has different biologies and a lot of different genetics, so it's not just one illness. We don't have one treatment that works for everybody."

After a long road going from one anti-depressant to the next, Tucker Davis says that with VNS, "there are a lot more good days now."
After a long road going from one anti-depressant to the next, Tucker Davis says that with VNS, "there are a lot more good days now."

For a man who's regarded as one of America's leading depression investigators, it's the closest he or anyone can come to a definitive answer.

Rush had once thought he'd be a mathematician, until the day, as a Princeton undergraduate, he was confronted with a problem he couldn't solve. When another classmate beat him to it, he knew that it was time to switch his major.

For the past three decades, Rush, an affable, unassuming man of 58, has tried answering a larger, vexing equation: the mystery of mental illness' roots.

But in all his years in psychiatry, he's never encountered what he did nearly two years ago, when he met the patients in the VNS pilot study. "They were the most poorly functioning set of outpatients with depression I've ever seen," he says. "This is not the happy-go-lucky characters that go to a psychotherapist to complain about their problems. They've been to hell and back with the treatments, and they're not well." Many couldn't hold down jobs. All were referred to the study by psychiatrists who'd exhausted all of their options.

When Rush began his career, there were only a handful of drugs, as well as psychotherapy and electroconvulsive therapy, available to patients. Now, the whole of neuroscience is massively different than it was even 10 years ago, as it's grown to include knowledge of neurotransmitters. Rush postulates that the VNS device may affect the production and activity of the neurotransmitter in the brain that is linked to depression. Studies so far have shown that VNS can change blood flow to certain parts of the brain that are known to be related to the illness.

The VNS surgery takes about two hours, and for about eight weeks, the electrical current stays the same. It is adjusted, if necessary, based on the patient's response. Once the device is set, the charge determined, it goes for years, until the battery runs out. To date, only one person in the pilot study has had the device removed, and the remainder continue to check in with doctors involved in the trial.

As for improvements, Rush has seen a range of responses. Some didn't see results for weeks. For others, it took several months. "It varies from person to person. Sometimes a person will say I feel less anxious. Or I'm concentrating better...but what you see is these symptoms of depression gradually get less and less severe."

Joanne Tesoriero was one who saw results.

"I felt it was a gift from God, my last hope, really," says Tesoriero, a 52-year-old mother of seven who was the last person accepted into the 30-patient pilot program. Someone had dropped out, which was the only reason she was admitted. Her psychiatrist had been to a conference where Rush was speaking about VNS, and was "100 percent for it."

"And so was my husband," Tesoriero adds. "It's hard on the family. Because you don't take pleasure in the things you used to. Can't connect." Not with her pets. Not with her children.

These days, she's added five more kittens to her home. "They're lovable, they're huggable. You feel a lot when you hold them," she says, smiling broadly.

Before VNS, Tesoriero's depression, which she attributes to postpartum depression, got so severe that she stopped eating. "I just left it in God's hands," says this devout Catholic, whose home is filled with Christian relics, such as the cross hanging over her kitchen door. At her worst, she had said, "Take me, Lord. If you want to save me, save me, but I'm not going to do anything to survive."

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