Tommy Van Brocklin didn’t see any way out.
At age 60, he had battled depression since his teens. His doctors put him on different drugs, but none worked for long.
His dark moods made it hard to continue at his job as a civil engineer in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I’ve functioned all these years, but it has been very difficult at times,” he said. “The past couple of years I just started crying a lot. I was an emotional wreck.”
Tommy is far from alone.
A Better Way to Treat Depression
Depression is the world’s number one cause of disability. That’s not only because so many people suffer from it, but because the first-line treatment, antidepressant drugs, often don’t work.
Even when they do work, they usually take weeks or months to have an effect. And they can have serious side effects.
Last year, Tommy’s sister told him about an experimental trial at Stanford University. They were testing a non-drug depression treatment called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS).
It uses pulses of magnetic energy to stimulate parts of the brain that are underactive in people with depression. The treatment is already approved by the FDA to treat depression. But the Stanford study was modifying it to try to make it work better.
The researchers changed the therapy by using MRI scans to locate the best spot to target in each patient’s brain. And they also administered magnetic stimulation in more frequent, smaller doses than the current protocol.
In the Stanford trials, patients received 10 treatments for a length of 10-minutes each spread out over a day. They did this for five consecutive days.
During treatments, patients sit still while a magnetic stimulator targets specific brain regions. Patients are fully conscious. The treatment is pain-free, although some patients say they can feel a mild tapping sensation in their head.
The Stanford trial subjects had suffered from depression for an average of nine years. All had tried medications. But, like with Tommy, the drugs either had no effect or had stopped working.
The Best Remission Rate of Any Depression Treatment
After five days of treatment or less, depression completely lifted in almost 80% of the participants.
These are “the best remission rates” of any depression treatment, according Dr. Shan Siddiqi, a Harvard psychiatrist not connected to the study.
The outcome is even more impressive because the study included “people who had already failed multiple other treatments,” he said.
Unlike antidepressant drugs, the treatment showed only mild and temporary side effects such as fatigue and headaches. And the results seem to last. So far, all the subjects remain free of depression.
Dr. Nolan Williams is senior author of the study. Targeted magnetic therapy “works well, it works quickly, and it’s noninvasive,” he said. “It could be a game-changer.”
Tommy underwent the treatment in September. On the third day, his depression lifted.
“I wake up now and I want to come to work, whereas before I’d rather get a sharp stick in my eye,” he said. “I have not had any depressed days since my treatment.”
Emma, a 59-year-old woman, received Stanford’s treatment three years ago. She’s still in remission.
Before magnetic therapy, “I was suicidal,” she said. “I was going to die. It saved my life. I’ll be forever grateful.”
Stanford’s treatment is expected to be approved by the FDA in the coming months and become widely available by the end of the year. The technology is licensed to a company called Magnus Medical, which plans to distribute the device that administers the magnetic pulses.
Patients who think the therapy may help them should contact their doctor about arranging treatment.
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