New brain zapper may help to treat depression in three minute daily bursts, study claims


New brain zapper may help to treat depression in three minute daily bursts, study claims

A three-minute daily burst of a mild electromagnetic current can ease difficult-to-treat depression, according to a new study.

Patients found their symptoms improved significantly, including those who had tried up to six types of antidepressants without success, and some remained symptom-free for at least six months. 

The main treatments for anxiety and depression are talking therapies, such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and medication. 

NHS waiting lists for counselling are often long, while drug treatments may not work — one UK study found that 55 per cent of those prescribed antidepressants by their GP did not respond to them. The drugs also carry the risk of side-effects.

Patients found their symptoms improved significantly, including those who had tried up to six types of antidepressants without success, and some remained symptom-free for at least six months

The new treatment — intermittent theta-burst stimulation (iTBS) — is a form of brain stimulation using an external magnetic field. 

It is different from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a controversial treatment for severe depression in which a small electric current is passed through the brain while the patient is under general anaesthetic, and which has been linked in some cases with long-term memory loss.

For iTBS, which does not require anaesthesia, a paddle-like device containing an electromagnetic coil is placed close to the scalp. 

A current is then passed through the device, creating bursts of electromagnetic energy every eight seconds. 

This is targeted at the dorsolateral left prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which is involved in the regulation of mood.

All the patients on the trial had previously failed to respond to at least two antidepressants, some of them had tried up to six

All the patients on the trial had previously failed to respond to at least two antidepressants, some of them had tried up to six

People with depression have been found to have low levels of activity in this area. The treatment, which lasts only three minutes, painlessly stimulates nerve cells in the brain. Patients typically have around 20 sessions over four weeks.

A trial of iTBS on 30 patients at Nantes University Hospital, in France, reported in the journal Brain Stimulation, showed that after a course of treatment, depression symptoms at least halved in 37 per cent of participants — and 19 per cent of them went into remission.

This remission rate was 27 per cent higher than in a comparison group given repetitive cranial stimulation, another form of brain stimulation which takes up to 40 minutes to perform. All the patients on the trial had previously failed to respond to at least two antidepressants, some of them had tried up to six.

There were no serious side-effects reported — headache was the most common complaint associated with the treatment.

‘We observed a clear subsidence in depression during the month of stimulation,’ said the researchers. ‘Our study suggests this stimulation provides long-lasting improvement of depression and quality of life in highly resistant depression.’

Now, a new clinical trial of the treatment is under way, involving 60 patients at the University Hospital of North Norway.

During this study, patients will be given either three minutes of iTBS or a placebo treatment every day for two weeks, and their symptoms will be compared before and after.

‘This is clearly good news,’ says Carmine Pariante, a professor of psychiatry at King’s College London. 

‘The results are very good. We now need to see whether this new treatment is as good as ECT, which remains the most effective treatment for depressed people who do not respond to all available antidepressants.’

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