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Pioneering Surgical Treatment for Depression

“Unless you’ve been there,” observes Vito Randazzo, “you’ll never understand the pain of mental illness.” Vito suffered from nearly unendurable depression for more than a decade. But a new kind of neurosurgery has given him a reprieve.

Dr. Sameer Sheth, Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, performed the procedure. He explains that sometimes physicians can use electrical impulses to target faulty brain circuits. The surgery—called deep brain stimulation, or DBS—can restore proper function.

It was a long road to DBS for Vito. There are people who can control their serious depression through psychotherapy and/or medication. For others, electric shock treatment is a lifesaver. And some are unlucky and nothing helps.

Vito was one of the unlucky ones. “For years,” he remembers, “I was trapped in a dark fog.” He could not work or participate in family life. Eventually, he came to see Dr. Sheth in the Department of Neurosurgery at Columbia.

Like all experienced specialists, Dr. Sheth has seen patients with similar symptoms. But while situations may repeat, he points out, human beings do not. He strives to bring the utmost respect and attention to every consultation. “For each individual patient,” he reminds himself, “it’s his or her first time dealing with this problem.”

This belief in each patient’s unique importance drives Dr. Sheth to find new ways to help. That’s what fuels his extensive involvement in research. And his research has enabled him to offer new options to some patients whose disorders are very difficult to treat.

DBS is a case in point. Doctors have been able to use DBS to care for some patients suffering from movement disorders like Parkinson disease for years. But Dr. Sheth is in the vanguard of surgeons who are figuring out how to use the technique to help certain patients manage—or even recover from—mental illness.

Vito told Dr. Sheth about the extent of his depression and the many ways he had tried to address it. After many months of vetting Vito and his condition with a multidisciplinary team, Dr. Sheth believed that Vito was a good candidate for DBS—that the surgery might succeed where other treatments had failed. Vito decided to do it.

Dr. Sheth and Vito spent a full day in the operating room. Dr. Sheth threaded tiny electrodes into the part of Vito’s brain he knew was most involved in his depression. (Learn more about Dr. Sheth’s approach to using DBS.) Then he connected the electrodes to a pacemaker-like device implanted in Vito’s chest.

“There was an immediate effect seen in the OR,” says Dr. Sheth. “But real changes took a couple months to emerge–which is typical. It’s not as if DBS was a magic bullet. Vito still had to work hard to fight through the depression, but the therapy helped him actually succeed this time, whereas nothing else in the past had done so.”

So a little more than a year later, just how different does Vito feel? “I can laugh again and really enjoy life with my family,” he reports. In short, he says, “the surgery transformed my life.”

Congratulations to Vito Randazzo and his family on their new beginning. We are very happy for them.

Read more about Dr. Sheth at his bio page here.

patient journey

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