Brain and Body

A Drug-Free, Painless Approach to Treating Depression

November 10, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

MRI brain scan
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Scientists have shown that magnetic pulses can reset unhealthy brain activity in a non-invasive way.

Transcranial magnetic pulses (TMS) appear to “reset” the brains of depressed patients, according to new research by scientists in the UK. Depression treatment approaches that directly stimulate the brain, like Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), have long baffled scientists — they could observe that the technique was beneficial, but couldn’t determine how it achieved its therapeutic effect. Scientists were able to see the positive effects of TMS on a number of brain conditions, but now, for the first time, they’ve have shown exactly how it works on a neurological level.

In addition to treating depression, the TMS technique has been shown to boost people’s memories, help patients with Parkinson’s disease, and pave the way for stroke victims to speak again. Basically, it works by delivering small bursts of energy to targeted brain regions via an electromagnetic coil.

SEE ALSO: Is Psychotherapy Overrated?

TMS could be a great alternative to Electro-Convulsive Therapy, which is considered a last resort for treating neurological illnesses. Not only does ECT require anesthesia, but the electricity delivered to the brain is much less targeted than with TMS, and ECT can leave patients with memory loss. TMS, on the other hand, requires no drugs, no IVs, no type of sedation, and is painless. The most uncomfortable possible side effect is a headache — not a bad deal for depression relief.

The researchers at the University of Nottingham in the UK observed the different effects of TMS in patients with major depressive disorder as well as healthy participants in a control group. They targeted an area in the prefrontal cortex that’s known to be overactive in depressed patients, linked with overthinking, self-absorption, and impaired attention. When the researchers sent the powerful magnetic pulses to this brain region, they saw that TMS could slow down the brain activity in the depressed participants.

The mental health field is in dire need of a new approach at treating depression. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, depression affects approximately 6.7 percent of the US population over the age of 18, and as many as one in eight adolescents. Medication and psychotherapy are currently the most popular approaches at treatment, but a tremendous one-third of patients don’t respond to traditional meds like Prozac and Lexapro.

Cereal bowl of antidepressants. Pills. Pharmaceuticals. Drugs
It's been more than 30 years since a new class of antidepressants was last discovered. Photo credit: Carsten Schertzer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Pharmaceutical companies constantly dish out new antidepressants with empty promises of being the next revolutionary treatment, but in reality, it’s been more than 30 years since a truly new medication has hit the market. It’s all just minor tweaks of existing drugs. The Washington Post reports that experts emphasize the importance of a new tool to treat depression cannot be understated.

This study was the first-ever to use functional MRI scanning to guide TMS pulses followed by measuring the changes produced in the brain. The researchers found that the benefits of TMS appear to start working after just one session, which could lead to much quicker depression treatment than currently exists.

So, TMS is non-invasive, quick, and painless — what’s the catch?

As in all research, there were some significant limitations to the study, namely the small sample size. The researchers only observed the effects of TMS in the brains of 16 healthy participants and 16 depressed patients. The method would have to be tested out much more before jumping to the conclusion that it’s the next revolution in depression treatment.

Nonetheless, the findings offer a new sense of hope for those who are struggling with depression or have loved ones battling the illness.

On behalf of the European College of Neuropsychology, Professor Catherine Harmer, a neuroscientist from the University of Oxford who wasn’t involved in the study, said the findings were an exciting step in understanding how magnetic stimulation may benefit the brain. “TMS techniques are still evolving and their efficacy in treating depression remains to be fully validated and optimized. This kind of experimental medicine study is therefore essential for the improved personalization and treatment of depression in the future,” she said.

The medical field still has a long way to go, but with exciting advancements like TMS, the future of medicine may offer paramount progress for the brain.

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