Many of us have experienced that "can't leave the house for months because life is meaningless and everyone hates me anyway" feeling called clinical depression. If you're one of the lucky ones, you can take an antidepressant and get better. But a lot of depressed people don't respond to standard antidepressants, and that just sucks. Luckily, science has now figured out a new cure for depression, and it's this: just cheer up! Things aren't that bad! You could be homeless and eating out of a dumpster!
That's more like it! OK, go ahead and be depressed now.
Nah, just kidding. Depression is a serious illness, and anyone who thinks otherwise should stop reading now and go listen to angry talk radio or something. But it is true that people are figuring out new ways to treat it. For example ...
Ultrasound machines use high-frequency sound waves to show images of what's inside the human body, like a giant mechanical bat, except with more uncomfortably cold gel. They're not exactly uncommon in the medical world, but most of us associate them purely with things like diagnostic tests and pregnancy exams.
Congratulations! It's a kidney!
But ultrasounds can do more than just show bat-magic images of the inside of your body; they can also change the behavior of animals when applied to their skulls. A scientist at the University of Arizona heard about this and decided to try the same thing on humans. Or one human, to be specific: The guy used an ultrasound on his own brain. To his surprise, he experienced an "elevated mood" for an hour afterward. Rather than sitting there with the ultrasound wand to his head giggling for a week or two like most of us would, he decided to get approval to test it on others.
Sure enough, a double-blind study showed that patients with ultrasounded heads reported being in a better mood for about 40 minutes after their skull-wanding. Waving an ultrasound around one's scalp seems to provide humans with the necessary brain-tingles to get us out of a depression slump, at least temporarily.
How Does That Work?
Ultrasounds operate on a similar frequency to that of the structures in the brain that affect mood, which means that putting a bunch of bat-waves into your skull is a bit like turning up a song that your brain really, really likes. Ultrasounds can also focus on really small areas, meaning that they can potentially be used to target and zap particular parts of the brain structure.
"I'd like you to stimulate the part of my brain that is responsible for limericks. Got a big limerick meet tomorrow."
Nicotine, the stimulant drug that occurs naturally in tobacco products, is usually lumped in with the thing people usually do with tobacco products: smoking. Until relatively recently, hardly anyone cared what, if any, benefits nicotine might have, because consuming the stuff was probably going to kill you. It would be like asking whether John Wayne Gacy was a good clown.
There's no such thing as a good clown.
But since nicotine patches were invented in the mid-'80s, nicotine has been gradually losing its psychopomp reputation. More and more scientists have started asking, "Hey, why do people like to smoke so much?" The question gets relevant when you consider that people with depression are twice as likely to smoke as the non-depressed. Are those people depressed because of their brown teeth and future cancer death, or is it that depressed people are using nicotine to self-medicate?
Spoiler: It's probably the latter, because nicotine is just awesome at fighting depression. A 2006 study of depressed non-smokers assigned people either a nicotine patch or a placebo/glorified Band-Aid. Patients who wore the nicotine patch for eight days or longer reported a "significant" decline in depressive symptoms.
How Does That Work?
Turns out nicotine stimulates the part of the brain that regulates mood and increases your levels of dopamine and serotonin. This isn't to say that you should go out and start smoking to fix your sad; brain benefits don't cancel out addiction and dying of lung cancer. But strangely enough, once it's been removed from its tobacco birthplace, nicotine really isn't that addictive. When you take out all the tobacco-y goodness, it's almost impossible to get lab animals addicted to nicotine, no matter how much you push it on them.
"Dammit, now how are we going to build up a captive market for rodent-size e-cigs?"
Still, a lot of scientists recommend that people don't rush out and self-medicate with nicotine patches, because the potential long-term health issues haven't been studied enough. But maybe one day soon, a safe nicotine-derived drug will come on the market, and then we can all thank generations of smokers for sacrificing their healthy lungs to science.