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Magnetic Pulse Helps Depression Suffers - by Mandi Trimble (WOSU public media)

Treatment options for people who suffer from major depression recently have broadened. As WOSU reports, a new therapy that uses magnetic energy is giving some patients relief – and hope – after years of struggling with mental illness.

“I was starting to once again approach where I had wanted to be always and that was enjoying life for what it was,” Mark Jeffreys recalled.

Jeffreys has suffered from depression for 35 years. At one point, he attempted suicide. He has been hospitalized, taken medicine and gone to counseling. Still he suffered. Last year, the 48-year-old tried something new, a treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation. His days brightened. “A weight was lifted off my brain figuratively, lifted off my shoulders figuratively,” he said.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation sends magnetic pulses to the area of the brain which controls emotions and behavior. Think MRI on a smaller scale.

Ohio State University Dr. Kevin Reeves said some people who suffer from depression have inefficient limbic system connections. That’s where he said transcranial magnetic stimulation – or TMS – can help.

“To help it restore its normal functioning, and to allow it to filter and process emotions more efficiently so people can experience relief from these overwhelming and uncontrolled emotional experiences,” Reeves said.

In a small room at OSU’s Harding Hospital, the set-up looks like a dentist’s office. Overhead equipment hovers over a reclining chair. First, Reeves must find the area of the brain to stimulate. He uses a magnetic pulse to locate the brain’s motor strip which controls movement. Once the patient’s thumb twitches, they’ve found it. “Once we’re there, we know that that is along the same plane as the area of the cortex that ties into the emotional centers of the brain.”

The patient remains alert during the treatment. There are no needles or scalpels. A small, curved device fits on a small section of the head, and for about a half hour, four-second intervals of low and high magnetic pulse frequencies are sent to the brain. Patients may feel a light tapping on the head.

Jeffreys began his treatments in fall 20013, five days a week, for six weeks. By the fifth week, his mood changed.

“The melancholy perhaps was diminishing significantly,” he said. “And I was entering more positive thinking and a lot less wanting just to do nothing.” The treatments aren’t for everyone. Dr. Reeves said they’re used for people with major depressive disorders or bipolar disorder. And right now, OSU only treats adults. While studies on TMS have generated mixed results, the FDA approved the therapy in 2008.

Results vary between patients. Reeves said about three-quarters of people he has treated have responded to it. He said symptoms can improve for several months or even for the better part of a year.

Doctors don’t consider TMS a panacea for depression. Reeves said it complements other therapies, like medication. “In general, once people are feeling better, it may be that they’re able to reduce the amount of medication that they take to keep themselves well,” he said. “But I think that if a patient were to ask me, ‘could I come off of a medication during this treatment,’ I would recommend against it because I think removing any source of support may have undesirable consequences.”

After his treatments, Jeffreys said he felt good for about six months. “And then I started noticing the urge to not do anything creep back into my thinking.” Now he’s is trying to coordinate maintenance sessions. “That’s a hot topic for research right now is how often and how long do we need to provide this treatment in follow up to make sure people stay well,” Reeves noted.

The treatments are expensive. A six-week course costs $7,500, but Jeffreys’ insurance covered it.

When asked what life would be like for him had he not received transcranial magnetic therapy, Jeffreys offered a candid and concise answer.

“I probably wouldn’t be at this interview.”

Research has shown that TMS can help treat schizophrenia, pain disorders and the effects of stroke.

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