Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS): New Hope for Treatment of Severe Depression

One of the leading forms of mental illness today is severe depression.  An estimated 15 million Americans suffer from this disorder, which creates ongoing symptoms of sadness, hopelessness, sleep and appetite disturbance, and even despair.

For many individuals, psychotherapy combined with antidepressant medication can be a literal lifesaver.  However, some people who suffer from severe depression do not respond to conventional treatment approaches.  Recent advances in alternative treatments have led to a new method of managing depression: the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

The Nature of TMS Treatment

TMS is based upon the principle that direct electrical stimulation of nerve cells in the brain can affect mood and behavior. Many mental disorders may stem from abnormal behavior of particular regions of the brain or the over- or under-stimulation of nerve cells.

The transcranial magnetic stimulation procedure involves the use of magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.  While sitting in a specially designed treatment chair, a patient has a large electromagnetic coil placed against the scalp.  A magnetic field can then be produced by passing a current through the coil, as a machine generates the precise amount of current necessary. When the coil is activated, its current travels through the skull into the brain, stimulating the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with mood control.

A series of several treatments is usually conducted to achieve maximum effectiveness.

TMS Benefits and Concerns

The benefits of TMS can be significant.  Most importantly, it has been demonstrated to reduce symptoms of depression in patients who did not respond to other treatments methods.  In addition to reduced depression, patients have reported less anxiety and increased energy.  In clinical trials with one type of TMS protocol, 1 in 2 patients were found to have significant improvement after 4-6 weeks of treatment, while 1 in 3 became symptom-free.

TMS is a non-invasive procedure, is not painful, and requires no sedation or anesthesia, unlike electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), for example.  Patients can immediately return to normal activities after a round of TMS treatment.

The treatment also does not produce the side effects, such as weight gain, insomnia, or sexual dysfunction, associated with many antidepressant medications.

Today, TMS is only administered when a patient has demonstrated lack of response to other treatment methods.  Individuals must typically attempt several courses of antidepressant medications before TMS is undertaken.

There are no currently known side effects or problems with TMS treatment.  However, the therapy has only been in regular use in the U.S. since 2008, after its approval by the Food and Drug Administration.  Therefore, its long-term effectiveness is not yet known.

However, this therapy has been the subject of research for over 20 years.  As its use continues, scientists can further predict its effectiveness as well as any possible side effects.

Regardless of potential long-term benefits, thousands of individuals currently suffering from severe depression can look forward to relief from symptoms through the use of TMS.