One in 20 people suffers from depression. Half of those have an
intractable type that will not respond to medicine or talking therapy.
Dr. Mark George, psychiatry professor and director of the Brain
Magnetic Stimulation Laboratory at MUSC, has worked for more than a
decade developing a new therapy to help depressed patients who are
running out of options.
The NeuroStar Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Therapy system was
developed by Malvern, Pa.-based Neuronetics with research that began at
MUSC. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the device Tuesday for
The device basically is a powerful magnet that delivers focused pulses
to an area of the brain that is linked to depression. The magnetic
pulses stimulate the nerve cells, and through a process not fully
understood, the stimulation alleviates symptoms of depression.
It is the first clearance for the marketing of a transcranial magnetic
stimulation system for treatment of major depressive disorder, FDA
press officer Scott McFarland said.
Previously, the arsenal to help treatment-resistant patients comprised
different methods of sending electricity into the brain.
Although several methods exist today, the oldest form is
electroconvulsive therapy, known as ECT or “shock therapy,” which has a
stigma because of its early use without anaesthesia.
In ECT, electrical currents are sent through the brain and trigger a
brief seizure. No one knows exactly how the therapy works, only that
changes seem to occur in the brain’s chemistry in a way that can offer
relief for some mental illnesses.
George, a brain imaging expert, said, “I became convinced the
seizure didn't matter. The electricity or current to the brain is
what matters. Maybe we can just kind of tickle those circuits without
turning them off.”
Early trials on the technology were carried out with funding from
NARSAD, an international charity dedicated to mental health research.
The most recent trial was funded by the device manufacturer, and MUSC
is conducting another study sponsored by the National Institute of
This gentler approach has fewer side effects than electroconvulsive
therapy and takes less time, George said. No anaesthesia is required
and no adverse effects on concentration or memory were reported.
“It feels like hitting your head with a hard eraser,” he said.
A course of treatment will cost about $6,000, compared to
electroconvulsive treatments which can run up to $20,000. “The next big
question is will insurance pay for these,” George said.
The machine costs between $50,000 and $60,000, George said. The
manufacturers have made only 15. MUSC will lease a device and begin
treatments in about two months, he said.
Charleston psychiatrist James C. Ballenger recommended a handful of his
patients to participate in the manufacturer’s trial and described the
therapy as “close to being miraculous.”
Unlike other forms of brain stimulation treatments, Ballenger said,
“The average psychiatrist can have this in his office.”
One of his patients had been depressed for 20 years and tried every
available medication with only short-term success. “He had an
astoundingly positive response,” Ballenger said.
In rare instances, the treatment can make changes in a patient’s
psychology that are unwanted, he said. For example, a bipolar patient
may swing from depression to mania.
To learn more about enrolling in a current National Institute of Mental
Health study on transcranial magnetic stimulation for
treatment-resistant clinical depression, go to http://tinyurl.com/3wykwd.
Editor’s note: The article ran Oct. 13 in the Post and Courier and is
reprinted with permission.
Friday, Oct. 17, 2008