A pioneering medical treatment using intense magnetic fields is achieving dramatic results for patients with drug-resistant chronic depression.
The transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) clinic opened at Melbourne’s Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in 2011 and has treated about 100 patients with a long history of mental illness.
The clinic is reporting a 50% success rate, as those previously crippled by depression are able to return to work and reconnect with friends and family.
After living with depression her entire life, Jan Steele, 57, said undergoing magnetic stimulation had been like winning the lottery. This weekend she is driving to Canberra for a weekend away with her husband. Before her treatment, she would often spend Saturday and Sunday in bed.
“The enjoyment I get out of life is outstanding now, even if it’s just staying home and watching TV,” she said.
Targeted at the approximately 30% of people who have treatment-resistant depression, TMS involves the use of an extremely focused magnetic field.
As the patient sits awake in an armchair, a wand containing a plastic-coated coil is placed close to their scalp – creating a magnetic field that stimulates activity in the brain. The treatment takes about four to six weeks and involves about 20 or 30 daily sessions lasting 45 minutes, although researchers have been successfully trialling a six-day treatment.
Centre deputy director Paul Fitzgerald said they believed TMS increased activity between areas of the brain involved in control of mood and emotion.
He said patients could remain depression-free for several months or even several years before they had to return for further sessions. “If they get better the first time, more than 90 per cent of people will respond again if you treat them,” Professor Fitzgerald said.
Chair of Psychiatry at Deakin University Michael Berk said TMS was one of the safest treatments available in the field of psychiatry. But like other depression treatments, including lithium and electroconvulsive therapy, he said researchers do not fully understand how it works, and why it works only in some people.
“There’s no [depression] treatment that works for everybody and we don’t have ways of predicting who will benefit from what treatment,” he said.
Experts at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre are studying these unanswered questions and also the possibility TMS may treat other conditions, including schizophrenia and autism. Professor Fitzgerald said eventually he would like to see the TMS success rate in treating depression rise to about 70%.
Until then, Jan Steele remains one of the lucky half. Depression, she said, was like carrying a wet blanket on your shoulders – and that weight has been lifted.