Magnetic pulses used in new treatment for depression

RONI CARYN RABIN

Martha Rhodes experienced her first bout of depression at 13. By her late 50s, she had taken just about every antidepressant there is, including Zoloft, Lexapro and Paxil — which did the trick for many years, but had side effects — then Effexor, Lamictal, Seroquel and Abilify.

After a suicide attempt in 2009, she tried something radically different: transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, a treatment in which magnetic pulses are used to stimulate parts of the brain believed to be involved in mood regulation. Unlike electro convulsive or shock therapy, which is also used to treat stubborn depression, TMS does not generally produce seizures.

Every day, she spent just over half an hour in a chair with a powerful magnet affixed to the front left side of her head. After four weeks, "I woke up and something was different," said Rhodes, who wrote a book, "3,000 Pulses Later" describing the treatment. "I felt lighter. I didn't wake up in the morning and wish I were dead."

For Rhodes, 63, a former advertising executive in Danbury, Connecticut, TMS treatment was transformative, and she no longer needs antidepressants. But there are still many questions about just how many severely depressed patients respond to TMS, which requires daily office visits for several weeks, costs thousands of dollars and is often not covered by insurance.

For the therapy, patients sit in a doctor's office with a large magnet pressed to the left side of their heads. The idea is that a pulsed magnetic field, similar to that used in M.R.I.'s, creates an electrical current in the surface of the brain that "resets" the patient's mood regulatory system.

TMS is approved specifically for patients whose depression does not respond to antidepressants or who cannot tolerate the drugs' side effects, which include weight gain and loss of sex drive. Many of these patients are desperate for alternative treatments, but it's not certain that TMS can provide the help they need.

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