It has been known for several years that stimulating the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to several major organs, can offset drug-resistant epileptic seizures. Last summer, the FDA approved vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) for use to treat severe depression as well. The only current manufacturer of a VNS device is Cyberonics Inc. of Houston. In the company's product, a pulse generator is surgically implanted into the left side of the chest, and a wire extends from the device up through the left side of the neck to wrap around the nerve. Patients must undergo additional surgery to change the battery every three to eight years. The device can be turned off at any time with a magnetic wand.
VNS has few of the side effects of traditional treatments for depression: no sexual dysfunction or memory impairment and minimal sleep disturbance and weight gain, which are often associated with antidepressants or shock therapy. However, there is a risk of infection due to the surgical incisions, and the long wire lead may cause painful adhesions and restricted movement. Additionally, side effects include hoarseness, shortness of breath, and voice alteration, although these are alleviated when the device is turned off.
Last summer, eight teachers from City of Pittsburgh high schools came to Pitt under a National Science Foundation-funded program in which they divided their time between Pitt's Learning Research and Development Center and a research project of their choosing. Four of the teachers chose to work on a device to prevent seizures under the guidance of Marlin Mickle, Nickola
Contact: Karen Hoffmann
University of Pittsburgh