Using magnets to treat depression sounds like a mad scientist’s scheme – but it actually works.
The treatment — known as TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation — is backed by years of research and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
It is a completely non-invasive therapy that delivers magnetic pulses that stimulate nerve cells in the part of the brain involved in mood control and depression.
And a new study from UCLA Health finds that a particular type of TMS is effective in patients with major depression — even after several courses of antidepressant drugs have failed.
The UCLA therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), works so quickly that it can ease symptoms of depression within days.
“What is most exciting to see is that these patients generally begin to report improvement within a week of starting treatment,” Dr. Michael Leuchter of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, said in a press release.
Some insurance plans will also cover the procedure.
What is TMS?
TMS is a therapy that uses a magnetic coil or paddle to create powerful magnetic fields that modify electrical activity in the brain.
The procedure was first developed in 1985 and is now used for a variety of mental health and brain conditions, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Depending on the type of treatment, the magnetic coil can be placed directly against the scalp, or the patient can wear a type of helmet with magnetic coils attached to it.
It is not entirely clear to medical researchers how TMS works, but it is believed to stimulate brain regions that have decreased activity during depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The procedure is non-invasive and does not involve surgery, injections or anesthesia. It is also usually painless, apart from some discomfort from wearing a magnetic coil and from the tapping sound that the magnetic coil makes.
TMS for depression
The FDA approved the use of TMS to treat major depressive disorder in 2008. The therapy is usually used after other treatments, such as antidepressant medications, have failed to alleviate depression symptoms.
In addition to depression, the FDA has approved the use of TMS to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and migraines and for smoking cessation.
Beyond these health issues, TMS has also been used to treat drug and alcohol addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, eating disorders, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), l ‘schizophrenia and complications caused by stroke.
In 2016, Connecticut resident Michele Pagano told the Post that she was “overwhelmed” to laugh for the first time in months after receiving TMS treatment for depression.
“I was able to reprogram in less than six months [after] living in depression, anxiety and sadness for over 20 years,” Pagano said, adding that he owes the procedure “more than I could ever repay.”
For the new study, researchers from the UCLA Semel Institute reviewed the results of hundreds of patients treated at UCLA Health from 2009 to 2022 with rTMS therapy.
Most rTMS patients received 20- to 30-minute treatment sessions five days a week for a period of six to eight weeks.
The results of the study, published this week in Psychiatry Research, found that 54% of patients had at least a 50% improvement in depression symptoms.
“We have a unique approach to rTMS treatment at UCLA,” said Leuchter, the study’s lead author. “In our ‘precision TMS’ model, patients see a psychiatrist at every treatment and we measure symptoms every week.”
The first improvements reported within five or 10 treatments predicted how well a patient would respond throughout their course of treatment.
Leuchter said this could help doctors decide whether or when to modify their approach for each individual patient.
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