CHICAGO, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Painless magnetic waves pulsed across the brain appear to relieve depression as well as the more traumatic and standard electro-convulsive shock therapy, researchers said at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
Called repetitive trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, the experimental procedure, which consists of a series of 20 treatments over a 2-to-4-week period, dramatically improves the condition of people with severe depression, said Sheila Dowd, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"We are really excited by these results," Dowd told United Press International. "I have to admit that we were somewhat skeptical that this procedure would work. We do not know the mechanism of action -- why it works -- but then we really don't know why electro-convulsive therapy works either."
Dowd and colleagues enrolled 26 patients in the study, randomly assigning them either to the magnetic therapy or ECT. "Most of the patients had been through electro-convulsive therapy before," Dowd said, adding that after the procedure, the patients said almost universally they preferred RTMS.
In the treatment, an electrical current passes through a metal coil applied to the scalp to produce fluctuating magnetic pulses. The pulses affect nerve cells in the brain in the area under the coil and possibly in other areas. Dowd said when the device was used as a probe by neurologists, some patients reported an elevation in mood -- hence the research to evaluate the machine as a treatment for depression. At least two companies manufacture RTMS devices.
The only side effects with the magnetic treatment were a few reports of minor headaches and some redness where the electrode-like coils were placed against the skull. The 15 patients given RTMS therapy did not lose consciousness during the procedure. In the full treatment course, 10,000 to 20,000 magnetic pulses are employed at the rate of 10 pulses a second. Patients received 20 pulses lasting 5-seconds each and 30 seconds apart in each treatment session.
In ECT -- often depicted in movies as a violent and uncomfortable procedure -- patients tend to suffer memory loss, the procedure requires hospitalization and the shock therapy is associated with social stigma.
"These people in the study need dramatic treatments," Tony Young, associate professor and chairman of the department of psychology at Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, told UPI. "Electro-convulsive therapy saves lives but can cause damage." Young said he would like to see further, larger studies that can replicate the effectiveness of the magnetic stimulation treatment.
In the study, Dowd said the depression scores on the Hamilton scale -- a standard measure of depression -- decreased by 55 percent in the patients receiving magnetic stimulation and by 64 percent for those receiving electro-convulsive therapy. Because the numbers of patients were small, Dowd said the differences in her preliminary study are not statistically different.
"This may be an alternative to electro-convulsive therapy," Dennis Warner, a behavior analyst at the River Street School, Windsor, Conn., told UPI. "These are preliminary results so it is really too early to tell how effective this will be, but it is something that we will want to watch develop."
Dowd noted magnetic stimulation differs considerably from magnet therapy. In magnet therapy, magnets are placed at wound sites or near injured joints and are supposed to promote healing. Few positive clinical studies have been produced in support of the therapy. But RTMS has been approved as treatment in Canada and other countries, she said.
Dowd's study was sponsored by grants from the university and from the National Institutes of Health-funded General Clinical Research Center, also at the university.