UF researchers show magnetic stimulation may be a safe alternative to shock therapy

October 12, 1999

GAINESVILLE---An experimental therapy that uses magnetic stimulation to treat severe depression could prove to be a viable option for patients who otherwise would resort to electric shock therapy, University of Florida researchers report.

In the past decade, magnets have attracted the interest of many health consumers and have carved out a sizeable niche in the alternative medicine market as a treatment for multiple ailments -- from arthritis to back pain.

Now a preliminary study, one of the first to provide scientific evidence of magnets' medical benefits, suggests magnetic stimulation may lead to a safe, revolutionary treatment for patients with clinical depression who do not respond to standard medications.

The treatment, called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), uses powerful magnetic fields that pulse in fractions of a second to induce a small electrical current in the brain, said Dr. William Triggs, an associate professor of neurology in UF's College of Medicine and the study's principal investigator.

"This treatment theoretically has the potential to supplement, if not replace, the treatment of depression with electroconvulsive therapy, otherwise known as shock therapy," said Triggs, who also is affiliated with UF's Brain Institute. "That's the most effective, rapidly acting treatment available for people who are severely depressed."

UF's findings, which appeared in July's journal Biological Psychiatry, mirror results from other recent studies conducted elsewhere. After two weeks of daily magnetic treatment, the 10 patients evaluated in the UF study showed improvement in tests that rate depression levels, and the results lasted up to three months. While other studies examined the treatment's efficacy, UF researchers wanted to focus specifically on its potential adverse effects to determine whether it may be a suitable alternative to current methods.

Electroconvulsive therapy and rTMS were both based on research that has shown sending electric current through certain brain regions helps treat people with severe depression. Triggs said researchers are not sure how or why electric current helps treat depression.

During electroconvulsive therapy, patients are placed under general anesthesia and their brains are stimulated with electrical current to produce seizures. Patients run risks from the anesthesia, and the treatment often produces cognitive problems, such as memory loss, that may last for months.

"Because there are so many side effects to stimulating the brain with electroconvulsive therapy, we wanted to find any evidence of side effects using magnetic stimulation," he said.

Originally developed in 1995, rTMS treatment involves placing an electromagnetic coil above the forehead and then sending rapid magnetic pulses through the skull, inducing electric current in brain tissues. The coil produces a weaker current than electroconvulsive therapy, and it can be focused specifically on the brain's left frontal lobe, where some researchers believe the abnormalities associated with depression originate.

Patients remain awake during the treatment, and none of those treated in the UF study developed significant side effects or memory loss. Triggs said the major theoretical risk of rTMS is the possibility of inducing a seizure in some patients, which researchers have found ways to minimize.

Triggs said rTMS could someday be used as a treatment for other types of neurologic or psychiatric problems. It also could benefit severely depressed patients earlier in the course of their illness.

"Traditionally, shock therapy is reserved for patients who are suicidal or who have failed multiple medication treatments, so they may go through years of failed treatment before receiving shock therapy," he said. "If rTMS proves to be a safer treatment, patients may not have to wait as long before being treated."
-end-


University of Florida

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