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Tomorrow’s world

Rewiring the brain to beat depression

Ken Probst/UCSF

For five years, a 36-year-old woman known as Sarah suffered crippling, untreatable depression and suicidal impulses. But when a team at the University of California San Francisco implanted two tiny wires in her brain – one to detect the onset of her depression, another that delivers a pulse of electricity to treat it – she was able to spontaneously laugh again. It felt like “being in front of a warm fire”, she tells The New York Times.

Deep brain stimulation is used to treat Parkinson’s, but it was previously thought insufficiently precise to affect the complex brain activity that causes depression. For Sarah’s treatment, the team mapped her brain patterns to discover the optimum spots for each wire to go. A pacemaker-like device costing more than £25,000 was then inserted into her head. It automatically provides six-second bursts of treatment up to 300 times a day. After years of being unable to taste food, Sarah could now pick out “the brightness and the herbs” in a bowl of Vietnamese pho in the hospital canteen. Travelling home one day, she was overwhelmed by the “gorgeous” beauty of the San Francisco Bay. The UCSF team is hoping to test the method on 11 more patients to see if it can be widely applied.

A cyber attack would cripple Britain

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“If a shortage of truck drivers can cause nationwide disruption and inconvenience, just imagine the panic that might ensue if Britain’s national infrastructure were to suffer a genuine catastrophic collapse,” says Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph. A cyber attack could do just that. Earlier this year a criminal group called DarkSide shut off half of the East Coast’s fuel supply “in minutes” by hacking Colonial, America’s leading pipeline operator. Next time it could be Russia or China, “at the stroke of a computer key”.

Knocking out a country’s grid or water supply would inflict far more damage than a conventional military attack. It’s also much easier and cheaper to do. And these “dramatic advances in technology” are spooking Downing Street. Deep in the bowels of Whitehall lies a detailed cyberattack contingency plan we hope will never see the light of day. No 10 has pushed to create an integrated national cyber command centre capable of deploying deterrents. What’s more, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has warned of Russia’s “deep interest” in probing our undersea cables. Here’s hoping Britain’s incoming Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Tony Radakin, has a “plan for keeping the lights on”.