Medical treatment of mental illness, from PTSD to depression, has come a long way. From asylums and "hysteria" to modern SSRIs and therapy, it's been one of the most eventful journeys in the history of medicine — but science continues to push the boundaries on treatment. Increasingly, modern technologies are being brought in to help patients, from tried-and-true methods to inventions that won't be perfected for decades. Advances in technology like virtual reality, smart brain scans, and magnetic fields are revolutionizing how we treat mental illness.
Technology can't help every issue under the sun, but scientists are hopeful that a range of bio-tech might be able to provide options for present and future generations of people with mental illness who need a break. At the moment, a lot of the discussion around technology and mental illness revolves around mobile apps, which can be personalized to an extent, but still won't be replacing one-on-one therapy and conventional methods of treatment any time soon. Beyond the smartphone, though, there are other things on the tech landscape, from algorithms to magnetic fields, that might be part of the future of mental health treatment. A lot of the work is preliminary and hopeful — but our kids and grandkids might be truly part of the space age of mental health.
There's more to virtual reality than science fiction and video games. Virtual reality technology has improved stratospherically since its invention in the 1960s, and its use of immersive environments has had psychologists interested for a long time, for one particular reason: helping people with anxiety disorders, phobias and PTSD. Exposing people to what they fear in a virtual space that's "safe" could advance therapy a lot, and help cut costs for patients who can't afford different methods of care. With VR, "there’s no need for a therapist to accompany a client on a trip to a crowded shopping centre, for example, or up a tall building," wrote psychology professor Daniel Freeman for The Guardian. "Situations that are more or less impossible to build into a course of therapy — flying, for example, or the shocking events that often lie behind PTSD — can be conjured at the click of a mouse."
In March 2017, Freeman and other researchers released the biggest overview of studies on VR and mental illness in history. Virtual reality, they concluded, "has the potential to transform the assessment, understanding and treatment of mental health problems," adding:
"The capability of VR to simulate reality could greatly increase access to psychological therapies, while treatment outcomes could be enhanced by the technology's ability to create new realities."
But a lot of the potential benefits depend on combining high-quality VR and what's called "translational intervention," or the process by which medical and scientific discoveries are "translated" into real-world applications. In other words, while virtual reality is full of potential, the way it's implemented in therapy could have drastic effects on how effective it is. One day, though, VR could be part of psychologists' standard arsenal when somebody with anxiety walks through the door.
Intelligent Brain Scans
Private companies are trying there hand at technologies with mental health benefits, too. One example is Mynd Analytics, the company behind a system called PEER Online that hopes to help people figure out their responsiveness to psychiatric medications without the need for a lot of trial and error.
Even with the refinement of modern psychiatric medicine, many people with mental illness need to try several different medications to determine what works for them and which has the fewest side effects. Antidepressants are seen as a key example: There are many kinds available, from SSRIs to tricyclics, and many people with depression have to try several kinds on several dosages before settling on one that creates stability. The attempt to refine this process has been the subject of a lot of research. Earlier this year, scientists at Kings College London said that they believed they might have a blood test that would help narrow down a person's antidepressant responses to help with treatment. But Mynd Analytics is taking on a bigger angle — and using technology to help.
Their idea, PEER Online, would use EEG scans— electroencephalogram tests that study brain activity through small sensors put on the skull — to determine how people might respond to psychiatric medication. With access to a database of 20 years' worth of EEG scans, they believe comparing results for people with different responses to different medications can help uncover which medication might work for someone with a particular brain patter. While EEGs aren't used to diagnose patients, Mynd thinks they could be used to narrow medications down. It would result in time saved for doctors and patients, AKA quicker access to effective treatment for patients — access that can be lifesaving.
Brain stimulation treatments for mental illnesses have been the focus of science for a while. Scientists discovered earlier this year that stimulating parts of the brain directly using electrodes seemed to help with treatment-resistant depression, for instance. But what about something minimally invasive that could do the same thing? New technology from the University of Buffalo might be the answer.
The researchers developed a technique called magneto-thermal stimulation that, they say, enables them to "activate" very specific parts of the brain. They injected magnetic nanoparticles into specific parts of the brains of live mice, and then subjected them to an alternating magnetic field. In mice, the researchers were able to stimulate areas to make the animals run and turn around. The scientific press have called it the "remote-controlled mice" phenomenon, but that's not all this could be helpful for. It's a big leap forward for people who hope to one day be able to cure psychosis, schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses by manipulating specific neurons in the brain, without damaging other parts. Finding out whether the magneto-thermal simulation technology would on humans is the next step.
From the miniature to the elaborate, technologies might prove to be the next vanguard of mental health treatment in the future. Don't be too surprised if in 20 years your therapist appears via virtual reality to prescribe you medicine based on your EEG results.