Proxac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa: Whether you're clinically depressed or not, you probably know all of those medications by name. But now you can replace them all with magnets. The Food and Drug Administration in the US has just approved a new option for the depressed and medication-weary: Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. Its jingle could be, "Cheaper than shock therapy, less frightening than electrode implants!"The TMS device that's been approved is called the NeuroStar, manufactured by Neuronetics Inc. Physicians use it by first finding a patient's motor control region — they hold a wire coil, or basic inductor, around a patient's head, and then send a current through the coil in order to induce a magnetic field. This magnetic field causes an opposite current to flow in the brain, stimulating electrical activity in its cells and creating a physical response in the body. If the patient's motor control region is "zapped" in this way, her arm might suddenly jerk. Using the location of the motor control region as a guide, psychiatrists then move the NeuroStar to find a patient's prefrontal cortex — where it is believed most mood problems arise. Over the span of six weeks, a patient receives thousands of magnetic pulses in 40-minute treatments that occur five times a week. In the FDA's study, the biggest complaint patients had was about headaches; unlike shock therapy, TMS doesn't seem to carry the risk of memory loss, and it doesn't induce seizures. Its overall advantage over antidepressants, however, is still up in the air. Lauran Neergaard of the Associated Press reports on the study's success:
About 24 percent who got TMS scored significantly better on standard depression measures after six weeks, compared with 12 percent who got the sham, says [NeuroStar study leader Philip] Janicak. That's about as well as patients respond to a single antidepressant, he said.
Neergaard also reported that one in five patients suffering from depression are treatment-resistant, meaning that they've tried at least two courses of antidepressant medication without adequate results. The FDA's test of TMS didn't use those severely treatment-resistant patients; instead, it focused on 164 patients who had undergone just one unsuccessful course with an antidepressant. And since Neergaard also pointed out that the FDA's was "a study fraught with statistical questions that concerned the agency's own scientific advisers," I'd advise you to wait a few months — like, say, until the NIH has given its two cents in an independent followup study — before strapping any wire coils to your head. Magnet Approved to Treat Depression [Discovery News] Image from Getty Images via Discovery.