This could be bad news for Big Pharma, for which sales of antidepressant medications bring in billions of dollars in profits – but it is potentially good news for the approximately 16 million people in the US who suffer from chronic depression. Doctors working at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior are using a non-chemical treatment for depression that can literally rewire a patient’s brain.
Known as “transcranial magnetic stimulation,” or TMS, this therapy received FDA approval for the treatment of depression in 2008. However, TMS technology has undergone major improvements in recent years, allowing patients to complete a full course of treatment in as little as 14 days.
There’s even more bad news for the pharmaceutical industry: patients report experiencing relief of physical pain after undergoing a TMS session. Medical researchers are now investigating whether TMS could eventually become an alternative to highly-addictive opioids. Furthermore, current research suggests that TMS may prove to be an effective treatment for other brain disorders that are typically treated with neuroleptics and other medications, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, chronic anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome and even autism. Researchers have also been investigating the use of TMS as a tool to help stroke victims in their rehabilitation as well as treating substance abuse.
TMS traces its roots back to the late 18th Century, when Italian physician Luigi Galvani, a pioneer in the field of bioelectricity, began experimenting with the effects of electricity on the body of animals (ultimately, his research inspired author Mary Shelly to write her famous novel, Frankenstein). The use of electricity to stimulate the human brain began a century later, leading to the development of electroconvulsive therapy (ETC) in the 1930s. Over the next forty years, ETC became a common treatment for mental illness, but fell out of favor in the 1970s because of overuse. It was at that time that British researcher Anthony T. Barker began his pioneering work on the use of magnetic fields for altering brain signals. This led to the development of the earliest TMS devices, which came into use in 1985.
Initially, TMS was considered a diagnostic tool, but eventually, doctors realized its potential as a form of therapy. Several improvements over the years have reduced the amount of time required for a single treatment by 90 percent. A patient undergoing a TMS session has an electromagnetic coil placed against his or her scalp. The device then delivers magnetic pulses targeted to the region of the brain that controls moods and emotions, stimulating those areas that have not been fully active – which is one of the root causes of clinical depression. Why this works is not fully understood – but patients and doctors report amazing results.
Dr. Andrew Leuchter of the Semel Institute said, “By using non-chemical means we can change the brain and how it functions…by pulsing it [the brain] with energy repeatedly, we’re changing the way that area works, but also changing the way the whole brain network works.” One of Leuchter’s colleagues, Dr. Ian Cook, agrees, describing it as “a really transformative kind of therapy.”
A few patients (approximately 5 percent) experience brief pain or discomfort from the electrodes during the initial treatments, but these effects soon pass.
There is more good news for patients: while a complete course of TMS treatment can cost up to $15,000, it is covered by most insurance plans – and more insurance companies are signing on. To date, approximately 1 million patients have experienced the benefits of TMS – and have been spared the many serious and debilitating side effects associated with psychoactive drugs.