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article imageStudy: Magnet therapy helpful in treatment of depression

By Joan Firstenberg     May 5, 2010 in Health
Using magnets to cure depression? Sounds hokey. But it turns out to be a newly discovered treatment, called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation for depression that actually works.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, without any industry support, shows that magnet therapy can relieve depression and does so with few side effects.
WebMD reports that the treatment itself is called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is basically where an electromagnet is applied to the skull just behind the left forehead. The device then put out a small electric current into the part of the brain that's linked to depression.
Doctors say there is little risk with this therapy and because of this, in October of 2008, the FDA cleared it to treat clinical depression in adults unable to get relief from first-line antidepressant pills.
To conduct the study, the researchers had to come up with a placebo for the magnet. The doctors chose earphones and electrodes that would mimic the actual sound, sight and feel of a real rTMS application.
Study researcher Sarah Lisanby, MD, chief of the brain stimulation and therapeutic modulation division at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute says they signed up 190 people who weren't getting any relief from at least one antidepressant medication, and many had tried several different treatments. They received either rTMS or the sham treatment for three weeks.
The results were reassuring. Fourteen percent of those treated with rTMS experienced a remission of their depression, compared with only 5% of those getting the sham treatment. Those patients whose depression did not go away after the three-week trial, were then given rTMS treatments, and 30% of these patients saw a break in their depression. Dr. Lisanby says
"The effect sizes we report with rTMS are about on par with what you see with antidepressant medications. The difference is that to get into our study, people had to have failed to have responded to a medication. And studies show that with previous failure to respond to an antidepressant, the rate of success for a second antidepressant is lower."
Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, associate director for treatment research at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says this means that depression patients now have a new treatment option.
"It is looking as if rTMS would be more effective earlier in the treatment course rather than later. More work needs to be done to find the right niche for this. We are very interested in personalizing treatment for depression, and this fits that theme. For a small but significant proportion of people who have not responded to medication -- one, probably, and not a whole series of drugs -- this could be a viable alternative."
Rudorfer says that in real-life clinical practice, doctors will probably wind up combining rTMS with antidepressant treatment. The study showed that rTMS appears to be free of any adverse effects, and does not induce seizures.
Dr. Lisanby says researchers are still working to optimize rTMS, trying to find its best dose and duration, and working to pinpoint the region of the brain where the stimulation will have the greatest effect.
The rTMS devices used in the study were NeuoStar devices, cleared by the FDA- made by Neuronetics. They were selected through a competitive bidding process.
Lisanby and colleagues will report their findings in the May issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.
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