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Using Lasers to Heal Mental Illness

Lasers for OCD treatmentIt sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s not. Neurosurgeons are using precisely targeted lasers to bring relief to patients struggling with mental illness, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Columbia University Medical Center neurosurgeon Dr. Sameer Sheth recently talked to WIRED Magazine about a procedure called anterior cingulotomy. This is where a small probe is guided through the brain until it reaches a specific cluster of neurons.

The surgeon then uses a laser to burn away a small portion of the brain tissue—just about half a teaspoon’s worth. This is known as laser cingulotomy. The operation is incredibly delicate and precise. It relies on the neurosurgeon’s ability to use magnetic resonance imagery and electrical probes to make a “map” of the patient’s brain functions. With this map the surgeon can reach the right spot with fractions-of-a-millimeter accuracy.

The part of the brain Dr. Sheth targets is the anterior cingulate cortex. “If you’re working on a particular project, this part of the brain will help you allocate resources and expend the right cognitive energy,” said Dr. Sheth. In other words, this is the part of the brain that tells you when a task is finished and it’s time to stop thinking about it. But in a person with OCD this part of the brain misfires and throws off the balance between what is important and what is not. The sufferer thinks too much about some things, so much so that it can interfere with normal activities.

Dr. Sameer ShethDr. Sheth told WIRED that neurosurgeons in this field target as small a part of the brain as possible.  This way they can make very small changes, and they only burn away as much of the brain as they know is safe.

“We do a small procedure, and see how patients respond,” he said. Based on that response, the surgeons gauge how to do the next steps.

So far this surgery is used in a very small percent of OCD patients. Surgical treatment is only considered if the symptoms are severe and have failed to improve with non-invasive treatments such as medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. These patients should be evaluated at a center that is experienced in treating severe mental illnesses, such as the facility here at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

To learn more, read the whole article in WIRED Magazine here.

Learn about Dr. Sameer Sheth at his bio page here.

Photo Credit: © James Steidl/Dollar Photo Club

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