Using magnets to treat depression sounds like a mad scientist’s plan, 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 multiple antidepressant treatments have failed.
UCLA therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), works so quickly that it can relieve symptoms of depression within days.
“What’s most interesting to see is that these patients usually begin to report improvement within a week of starting treatment,” said Dr. Michael Leuchter of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior , in a press release.
Some insurance plans even cover the procedure.
What is TMS?
TMS is a therapy that uses a magnetic coil or paddle to create powerful magnetic fields that change the electrical activity of the brain.
The procedure was first developed in 1985 and is now used for a range 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 against the scalp, or the patient may wear some sort of helmet with magnetic coils attached.
Medical researchers aren’t sure how TMS works, but it is thought to stimulate regions of the brain that have decreased activity during depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The procedure is non-invasive and does not require any surgery, injections or anesthesia. It is also generally painless, aside from some discomfort from wearing a magnetic coil and the tapping noise made by the magnetic coil.
TMS for depression
The FDA approved the use of TMS to treat major depressive disorder in 2008. The therapy is typically used after other treatments, such as antidepressants, have failed to relieve symptoms of depression.
In addition to depression, the FDA has approved the use of TMS to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and migraines as well as to stop smoking.
Beyond these health conditions, 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 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 myself in less than six months (after) living with depression, anxiety and sadness for over 20 years,” Pagano said, adding that she owed the procedure “more than I could never repay.
For the new study, researchers at the UCLA Semel Institute looked at outcomes of hundreds of patients treated at UCLA Health from 2009 to 2022 with rTMS therapy.
Most rTMS patients received treatment sessions of 20 to 30 minutes five days a week for a period of six to eight weeks.
The study results, published this week in Psychiatry Research, found that 54% of patients had at least a 50% improvement in their 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 consult a psychiatrist for each treatment and we measure symptoms every week.
Initial improvements reported after five or ten treatments predicted how well a patient responded throughout their treatment.
Leuchter said this could help doctors decide if or when to change their approach for each individual patient.
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