A sixty-two-year-old British nurse named Sheila Cook began suffering severe depression a decade ago, leaving her suicidal and forcing her to retire from her job, with her husband becoming her full-time caretaker. In her quest for relief, she graduated from antidepressants to electric shock therapy to deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves inserting thin wires into the brain which are connected to a small matchbox-sized "pacemaker" that, when inserted subcutaneously, provides continuous electric stimulation. The purpose is to inhibit or stimulate brain circuits that are either too active or underactive. This latter treatment worked for a month or two, but the suicidal thoughts returned.
As a last resort, after having undergone DBS at the University of Bristol, where in conjunction with colleagues at Frenchay Hospital a pioneering style of DBS was being developed, Cook agreed to trial an even newer form of treatment called Anterior Cingulotomy. This involved burning out connections in the brain that were too active. The result? Almost a year later Cook is still free of depression. This is incredible news, as thousands of people could potentially be relieved of torturous suffering. But, by the same token, one can imagine that, had this miraculous neurosurgery existed just a few years earlier, someone like the writer David Foster Wallace might still be with us. The jury is still out on whether this is a universally effective panacea, but if it is, it could be one of the greatest mental health breakthroughs of the twenty-first century.