Magnetic Personality

A new type of magnet therapy may revolutionize how we treat depression.
By Linda Childers

Most types of magnet therapy sound like snake oil. A spam email, obscure website, or glowing advertisement promises that magnets will cure all your ailments, restore your youth, and do everything but your taxes. But not all of the magnet therapies are bogus. Take transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This noninvasive therapy uses magnetic fields to increase brain activity, and exciting new research shows it may alleviate depression in even the toughest of cases and may even treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s, insomnia, and memory loss.

During TMS therapy, doctors place a device containing a magnetic coil on your head, which generates magnetic pulses that travel to specific areas of your brain and create an electric current. This appears to activate the neurons there, although researchers haven’t figured out the exact mechanism yet. The procedure takes about 20 to 45 minutes, and you usually receive daily sessions for several weeks.

Metal coils and magnetic pulses may seem, well, strange. But many physicians—including Mark George, MD, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and radiology and director of the Center for Advanced Imaging Research and Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina—view TMS as a safe and effective way of relieving depression. “In our research, we’ve found that many people with depression who don’t respond to talk therapy and/or medications do respond to TMS,” George says. “One of the benefits of TMS is its unprecedented accuracy, which allows physicians to target the front area of a patient’s brain, an area associated with mood regulation.” By stimulating brain functions and chemical activity, George says, TMS effectively “jump-starts” the mood- regulating parts of the brain and significantly improves the condition of depressed patients.

Beyond Prozac
It certainly had that effect on Susan Morris, 49, of Camden, South Carolina. She had suffered from depression for many years and had tried talk therapy and various antidepressants, including Effexor, Wellbutrin, and Celexa, without success. “The medications either didn’t work, or they quit working after a short period of time,” she says. Last year, after a two-year bout of severe depression, Morris found herself on a downward spiral. “In October of 2007, I went through a period of depression when I feared I would hit rock bottom and not be able to get back up,” she says.

George, a pioneer in the field of TMS, suggested Morris undergo a series of half-hour TMS treatments over the course of three days. The results were immediate: Her depression lifted a day or two after the treatments. Others have had similar experiences. A 2007 study published in Biological Psychiatry, for example, looked at more than 300 people with severe depression and for whom antidepressants hadn’t worked. Half of the group received five TMS treatments a week, each session lasting 35 minutes. The other half of the group received placebo treatments. After four to six weeks, those in the TMS group had significantly better outcomes than the placebo group—with 14 percent to 17 percent of the people reporting that their depression had disappeared. While that may not seem like a huge percentage, it’s actually quite impressive when you consider that the participants all had major depression that was highly resistant to treatment. According to the researchers, who hail from the University of Pennsylvania and Rush University in Chicago, the success rates would most likely be even higher in patients with less resistant depression.

Developed in England and introduced to the US in 1985, TMS is garnering greater and greater acceptance in the medical community. In 2002, for instance, Canada approved TMS as a treatment for medication-resistant depression. And physicians anticipate the FDA will approve TMS as a depression treatment sometime in 2008. Even now, though, you can receive the therapy on an experimental basis at several private practices or by participating in research studies. The expected FDA approval excites many doctors, since “it’s estimated that 4 million people in the US are resistant to antidepressants,” says James Evans, founder of the Elata Foundation, a North Carolina–based nonprofit dedicated to promoting TMS research. And “for people who are seeking an alternative to antidepressants, TMS is being hailed as a life-saving breakthrough.”

Still, while many studies have demonstrated the short-term effectiveness of TMS, George says we need more data on how well it works over the long haul. It may be that an initial round of TMS sessions won’t cure you forever and symptoms return. In that case, you may need periodic “booster” sessions. “Studies are now in progress using TMS once a week as a maintenance procedure,” George says. Morris, who underwent TMS in October 2007, still felt the positive effects several months later, and she says she wouldn’t hesitate to have follow-up treatments. “It was a very relaxing experience,” she says. “I sat in a chair with my eyes closed, and it felt as if a woodpecker were lightly tapping on my head.”

Although that may not sound all that relaxing, TMS appears to be very safe. In fact, in 2007 the FDA’s Neurological Devices Panel declared TMS a safe therapy. Mild headaches, however, occur in about 10 percent to 15 percent of sessions, George says.

On the horizon
When Morris received TMS, her depression wasn’t the only beneficiary—she noticed other health boons as well. “I’ve been a heavy smoker and an insomniac,” she says. “After undergoing TMS, I no longer had nicotine cravings, and I’ve slept like a baby for the first time in years.” George says other patients have also reported sleeping better after TMS therapy. In an April 2007 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that when sleeping patients were given TMS, their brains produced more of the big, slow waves seen in the deep stages of sleep.

Even more exciting, some researchers believe TMS could help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss. At the May 2007 conference of the American Academy of Neuroscience, researchers from City University in New York reported that TMS caused new neurons to grow in the brains of mice. Since Alzheimer’s involves the loss of neurons, experts say that TMS may slow, or even halt, the progression of the disease by increasing neurogenesis and neuron activity. It could help patients suffering from brain damage after a stroke as well. Further studies are being conducted to see if TMS induces the same neurogenesis in humans as it does in mice.

The list of possibilities doesn’t end there. Clinical trials are also underway to examine the effectiveness of TMS for treating conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, insomnia, migraines, obsessive-compulsive disorder, postpartum depression, posttraumatic stress syndrome, schizophrenia, and Tourette’s syndrome. But these applications lie on the horizon. In the meantime, for people like Morris, it’s enough that TMS offers another promising tool against depression—and another reason for hope.

Learn more: For a list of frequently asked questions on TMS, information on how to participate in current TMS studies, and a list of doctors who practice TMS, visit You can get more information on TMS clinical trials at, and a current national trial is NCT00149838.

To find additional alternative treatments for depression, check out our Condition Center at

Drawn to TMS?
If you want to try transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy in the US, two avenues exist: You can participate in a TMS clinical study, or you can visit a private practice that offers TMS off-label. While the former is either free or inexpensive, the latter costs about $300 for a 30-minute session, and right now, insurance companies rarely, if ever, cover it (though that may change in the future).

Down the road, Mark George, MD, believes portable, personal TMS devices will be created. This would allow you to self-manage depression from the comfort of your living room. “The technology exists to create devices that patients could use at home,” he says. “The issue would be safety and how to insure proper supervision, but patients do home injections now, so this could likely be overcome.”

Currently, patients are considered good candidates for TMS if either they have tried antidepressants and still have significant depressive symptoms, or if they can’t tolerate the side effects of antidepressant medications, such as nausea, dizziness, and anxiety. But TMS can also be used by people who simply want to try something other than the ubiquitous Prozac—those who are searching for a less invasive, alternative method to treat their depression.

Certain patients, however, are not good candidates for TMS because of unknown or increased health risks they might have. People who fall into this category include patients with metal implants in their head, who are pregnant, have cardiac pacemakers, have suffered a stroke, who are prone to seizures or have a family history of seizures, or who have undergone neurosurgery.

Linda Childers is a California-based freelance writer who also has contributed to Pregnancy, Redbook, and other publications.