Interested yet? Long story short: I once had an implant the size of a pacemaker surgically implanted under my skin below my collar bone. The implant had a lead wire that was tunneled up through my neck and attached to my left vagus nerve. Once it was activated it sent a small electrical pulse to the vagus nerve – which leads into the brain’s emotion centers – every 5 minutes for 30 seconds. I was Borg.
The device was known as the VNS device (Vagus Nerve Stimulator) and was originally developed for treatment resistant epilepsy by a company called Cyberonics. One unexpected outcome of those using it for epilepsy was that it greatly improved their moods. So researchers began testing it for treatment resistant depression and eventually an FDA clinical trial began.
I was apart of that trial back in the early 2000s at the University of Minnesota. The first trial was conducted with only a handful of people but this FDA trial was larger: about 200 people across the US. Strict conditions were setup for participants. Everyone would have the device implanted but only half would have the device turned on (without knowing it). After a certain period of about 3 months everyone’s device was turned on (with knowing it).
Then the tweaks began. Every week I met with a study psychiatrist and and assistant who would check to make sure the device was working. They’d use a computer and a wand-like instrument held up to the device in my chest to change the parameters of the output of the electrical charge from the device – it’s frequency, amplitude, etc. Of course the purpose of these weekly tweaks were to find the right setting – or range of settings – that would help increase mood.
See, everyone has two vagus nerves on either side of their body. They are the superhighways of information transmitted between the brain and the body’s second brain: the gut. Most (about 80%) of the transmissions lead up into the emotion centers of the brain while about 20% lead back to the gut.
Now, you might be asking yourself “couldn’t you feel it when it turned on?” Yes, for the most part. As I stated earlier, every 5 minutes for 30 seconds the device would send a small charge through the lead wire. If the settings were high, I could definitely feel it because the vagus nerve runs very close to the vocal cords. It was a minor tickle in my throat that might have left me hoarse for 30 seconds depending on settings.
I remember one setting they had me on that was a bit strong and every 5 mins for 30 seconds If I talked I sounded like I was talking into a fan. I joked with friends that I sounded like a robot too. But if it ever got to be too much, causing pain, acting erratically, or I needed to temporarily turn off the device for speaking at meetings, etc., we carried a small but powerful magnet that could be held or taped over the device in our chests that would deactivate the device.
The cost of the device and surgery was over $20,000 but because I was part of the study everything was taken care of for free. Unfortunately for me after approximately 2 years of having the device implanted, I opted to have it removed because it didn’t help – not at all. But at least it didn’t make anything worse.
So, I am no longer part of the Borg Collective and everything, including the lead wires, were removed. That’s not to say it didn’t work for a small number of participants. Years later I found out that the device narrowly passed the FDA’s approval and as far as I know its still available for those who are severely treatment resistant.
I guess I’m writing this to share one of the radical procedures I was involved in to help ward off my depression. I find the whole thing very interesting even though it didn’t work out for me. But you never know what the future holds as far as treatments….