14 April 1999

Magnet Therapy Eases Severe Depression Study Shows

Magnets have long been promoted as medical cure-alls, but usually without hard scientific evidence to back the claims. Now a double-blind study at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology shows magnetic stimulation of the brain eases severe depression, which could be big news for millions of suffers world-wide.

The findings provide convincing evidence that transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain (TMS) is effective for treating severe depression and may become an alternative to electroconvulsive treatment (ECT), which causes painful convulsions and damage to memory functioning.

The effectiveness of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), a refinement of TMS, was tested on 67 patients in a double-blind study in which neither the patients nor the researchers are told who is receiving the treatment and who is not. At the end of two weeks, half the patients in the rTMS group showed a 50 percent improvement in their depression ratings. Only 25 percent of those in the fake-treated group showed the same improvement. Also, half the patients receiving the treatment had no need for further treatment with ECT, while all those receiving the pretend treatment required it.

"Our findings are very exciting, since they provide clear evidence for the effectiveness of rTMS, at least over the short term," explained researcher Dr. Ehud Klein. "The treatment holds the promise of eliminating the need for ECT therapy in many cases."

The Technion findings are being further supported by a further studies by the research team. Using brain tissue from laboratory animals, Dr. Dorit Ben-Shachar's research shows that rTMS causes biochemical changes, thus providing physical evidence that the treatment has a measurable biological effect. Her findings, first published in the Journal of Neural Transmission, Vol 104, have been accepted in Brain Research.

Both rTMS and ECT therapies affect the parts of the brain that play a role in causing severe depression, altering the metabolic activities in these areas. ECT stimulates the entire brain, is done under general anesthesia and causes painful convulsions and memory impairment that can last several months. rTMS directs a small electrical current induced by a strong magnetic field only on the prefrontal cortex behind the forehead. The treatment is repeated over short time intervals, is painless and has no side effects. During treatment, the magnetic field is transmitted through a coil. The coil is held close to the scalp so the field is focused and the magnetic pulses can pass through the skull.

Unlike the electricity used in ECT, which gets diffused by the skull, magnetic pulses pass readily through bone to stimulate neurons. Patients remain awake during treatment. During treatment a minority of patients complained of minor short-term side effects, such as headache. None of the patients complained about impact on memory, concentration or other cognitive abilities.