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Brain implants save woman from life-threatening bipolar disorder

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Lois Vaughn only went to the seminar at MUSC’s Institute of Psychiatry to humor her counselor, and she only stayed until the end because of the promise of sandwiches and soda.

By that sunny October afternoon in 2008, the 45-year-old Summerville woman had tried a variety of prescriptions and also electroshock therapy, in hopes that she could relieve her mind of the bipolar disorder pulling her closer and closer to suicide. Instead, the pills stopped working, and the electroshock therapy, while helpful, left patches of time missing from her memory.

Vaughn thought about how she could kill herself. If she crashed her car, the air bags might protect her. If she overdosed on pills, she could get sick but not die. She wanted to die, but she didn’t want her children to know she’d committed suicide.

Lois Vaughn

She listened to the seminar presenters: First, someone spoke about family support. Next, a physician discussed a milder form of shock therapy. Finally, a researcher presented the early success of a brain surgery study on four patients who first had failed every other treatment.

The procedure, called Epidural Cortical Stimulation, involved implanting paddles beneath the skull to stimulate the brain and help with mood – and it worked for all four patients. The researcher, Dr. Ziad Nahas, needed one more person to participate in his study.

“I knew why they had not found the fifth subject,” Vaughn remembered. “Because it was me.”

A grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation funded the study, and medical technology company Medtronic Inc. donated the devices for Vaughn’s and the other four patients’ surgeries.

Vaughn, a school teacher, had stopped working by then and had developed a hoarding habit that often accompanies bipolar disorder. She relished the good days, slipping into her backyard pool at night and gazing up at the stars, knowing that, come morning, she could careen over into the other side of her mood.

“Then I felt like I was alone in a dark ocean,” she said.

Her father killed himself when she was 19, and Vaughn wrestled with despair her entire adult life. She couldn’t plan in advance for trips, not knowing how she would feel when the time came to travel.

“They were thinking I had depression, but the depression just got worse and worse and worse and worse,” she said. A psychiatrist correctly diagnosed her with bipolar disorder in 2000, but she faltered under unsuccessful treatments for nearly a decade longer.

By that point, you’re willing to do anything,” she said. “You’re willing to drill holes in your head.”

The day after hearing Dr. Nahas speak at MUSC, Vaughn set up an appointment and, within a month, she underwent surgery. Two small generators show just below the skin on either side of her chest. Tiny wires run from each generator, up her neck and into her skull. Paddles at the end of the wires run two cycles to stimulate alternating parts of her brain. Vaughn keeps a remote, and her physician, MUSC Associate Professor Dr. Baron Short, maintains what Vaughn calls “the teacher’s edition” controller.

Vaughn's success with brain stimulation technology offers promise, according to Dr. Short. "I've personally seen folks not just feel better, but re-engage in life," he said. "I just wish there was more money allocated for this type of research. I see too many people that I could help, but the funding for research and clinical treatment just isn't there."

Vaughn notices when Dr. Short adjusts the settings on her device, but she otherwise feels nothing during treatment, which runs from the time she wakes up until she goes to sleep each night.

In the years after her surgery, Vaughn joined a new church and began dating again. She knows she won’t leave her children in the same manner that her father left her.  

“It’s hope for the people after me,” she said. “It’s much better to leave that legacy.”

Vaughn plans to pay off her home in the next few years and, after that, to catch up on travel she could never enjoy before.

“I was just trying to breathe in, breathe out and wait for the end of my life,” she said. “Now I look forward to my life. I know good things are out there.”