A promising scientific innovation has drastically changed his existence. Washing her hands until they bleed, maniacally checking that the windows are closed, eating alone for fear of being contaminated: Amber Pearson’s entire life was governed by his OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). But this ordeal is now just a bad memory thanks to a revolutionary brain implant.
This 34-year-old American is the first person equipped with a small device the size of a plaster at the back of her brain, which allows her to reduce both her OCD and his epileptic seizures. “I am really present in my daily life and it’s incredible,” the patient, who lives in Oregon, in the western United States, explains to AFP. “Before, I was constantly stuck in my head, worrying about my obsessions. » His very severe OCD could take “up to eight to nine hours a day” and isolated him socially.
Before going to bed, she had to make sure that the doors and windows were closed, the gas turned off and the electrical appliances unplugged. Terrified by the idea of being contaminated, she showered every time she changed her cat’s litter box. She washed her hands so often that her dry knuckles bled when she bent her fingers. And she often preferred to eat as a recluse rather than with family and friends.
It was the patient who suggested placing this implant
From now on, her OCD only takes up about thirty minutes each day. The 32mm implant sends an electrical pulse when it detects abnormal reactions in his brain to restore normal functioning.
This technique, called deep brain stimulation, has been used for more than 30 years against epilepsy. But its interest in reducing OCD was still poorly understood and confined to experimental research. Until the innovative intervention carried out in 2019 on Amber Pearson by doctors at the University of Oregon Health and Sciences.
His implant is “a device for OCD and epilepsy, the only device in the world that treats (these) two diseases” at the same time, underlines neurosurgeon Ahmed Raslan, still amazed by his patient. Because it was she who suggested the idea to the medical team.
Despite the removal of part of her brain, carried out due to her persistent epilepsy, the young woman still suffered from violent seizures. One of them even caused a cardiac arrest, which led doctors to want to transplant him with an implant against this resistant disease.
She then said to them, “Since you are going into my brain to put an electrode and I have OCD, can you also put one for OCD?” », says Dr Raslan. “Fortunately we took this suggestion seriously. »
Eight months for OCD to disappear
To design the device, doctors observed her brain activity, for example by giving her seafood, one of the foods that stressed her. This allowed them to identify “electrical markers” associated with these OCD. The implant is programmed “so as to trigger stimulation only when it detects this signal”, continues Dr Raslan. One program manages epilepsy, the other deals with OCD.
Amber Pearson waited eight months before noticing the first changes in her hellish rituals. Then, his life, completely turned upside down since high school, gradually became more and more normal. “I’m happy and excited again to get out and live and be with my friends and family, which I was cut off from for years,” she says.
A study to generalize this technique
With four years of hindsight, the procedure was praised in a scientific journal this winter. A study is currently being conducted at the University of Pennsylvania to see how this technique can be applied to other patients, according to Dr. Raslan. A source of hope in the United States, where OCD affects approximately 2.5 million people. More generally, brain implants are attracting more and more interest.
Monday, the company Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, announced that it had successfully placed its first brain implant on a patient. The start-up says it wants to use it to allow humans to communicate with computers, but also aims to make paralyzed patients walk again or restore sight to the blind.