Applying magnetic pulses to the brain can help treat depression among people who do not respond to standard medications or therapies, say scientists who found that the technique can 'rewire' neural connections. The technique, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), beams targeted magnetic pulses deep inside patients' brains - an approach that has been likened to rewiring a computer. TMS has been approved by the FDA for treating depression that does not respond to medications, and researchers say it has been underused. "We are actually changing how the brain circuits are arranged, how they talk to each other," said Ian Cook, from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the US. "The brain is an amazingly changeable organ. In fact, every time people learn something new, there are physical changes in the brain structure that can be detected," said Cook. During TMS therapy, the patient sits in a reclining chair, and a technician places a magnetic stimulator against the patient's head in a predetermined location, based on calibrations from brain imaging. The stimulator sends a series of magnetic pulses into the brain.
People who have undergone the treatment commonly report the sensation is like having someone tapping their head, and because of the clicking sound it makes, patients often wear earphones or earplugs during a session. TMS therapy normally takes 30 minutes to an hour, and people typically receive the treatment several days a week for six weeks. However, the newest generation of equipment could make treatments less time-consuming. "For some patients, we will have the ability to decrease the length of a treatment session from 37.5 minutes down to three minutes, and to complete a whole course of TMS in two weeks," said Andrew Leuchter, from UCLA. Leuchter said some studies have shown that TMS is even better than medication for the treatment of chronic depression. The approach, he says, is underutilised. "We are used to thinking of psychiatric treatments mostly in terms of either talk therapies, psychotherapy or medications," Leuchter said. Doctors are also exploring whether the treatment could also be used for a variety of other conditions including schizophrenia, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and chronic pain. "We're still just beginning to scratch the surface of what this treatment might be able to do for patients with a variety of illnesses," Leuchter said.
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