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 approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
This is a completely non-invasive therapy that delivers magnetic pulses that stimulate nerve cells in 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 severe depression, even after several courses of antidepressants have failed.
A UCLA therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), works so quickly that it can alleviate depression symptoms within days.
“What’s most interesting is that these patients generally begin to report improvement within a week of starting treatment,” said Dr. Michael Leichter of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Some insurance plans will even cover the procedure.
What is TMS?
TMS is a therapy that uses a magnetic coil or paddle to create powerful magnetic fields that modify the brain’s electrical activity.
The procedure was first developed in 1985 and is now used for a variety of mental health and brain-related conditions, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Depending on the type of treatment, the magnetic coil may be placed directly on the scalp, or the patient may wear a type of helmet with magnetic coils attached.
It’s not entirely clear to medical researchers how TMS works, but it’s thought to stimulate areas of the brain that decrease activity in depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The procedure is non-invasive and does not involve any surgery, injection or anesthesia. It is also generally painless, apart from some discomfort from wearing the magnetic coil and knocking of the magnetic coil.
TMS for depression
The FDA has approved the use of TMS for the treatment of major depressive disorder. The therapy is usually used after other treatments, such as antidepressant medications, have failed to relieve symptoms of depression.
In addition to depression, the FDA has approved the use of TMS for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and migraines, and for smoking cessation.
In addition to these health problems, TMS has also been used to treat drug and alcohol addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, eating disorders, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and complications from stroke.
In 2016, Connecticut resident Michelle Pagano told The Post that she was “overwhelmed” months after laughing for the first time after receiving TMS treatment for depression.
“I was able to reprogram myself in less than six months [after] living with depression, anxiety and sadness for over 20 years,” Pagano said, adding that she owes the procedure “more than I could ever repay.”
For the new study, researchers at the UCLA Semel Institute reviewed the outcomes of hundreds of patients treated at UCLA Health between 2009 and 2022 with rTMS therapy.
Most rTMS patients received 20- to 30-minute treatment sessions five days a week for six to eight weeks.
The results of the study, published this week in Psychiatry Research, showed that 54% of patients experienced at least a 50% improvement in their depression symptoms.
“We have a unique approach to rTMS treatment at UCLA,” said Leichter, lead author of the study. “In our ‘precision TMS’ model, patients see a psychiatrist at each treatment, and we measure symptoms every week.”
Early improvements reported within five or 10 treatments predicted how well the patient responded during their treatment.
Leichter said this could help doctors decide whether or when to modify their approach for each individual patient.
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