Synchronized transcranial magnetic stimulation, or sTMS, evoking a hundred women in electrified flowering bathing caps raising perfectly sculpted legs in time over the water line, is being meted out in experimental settings across the country in the hopes of unleashing the next big depression-buster on an ever-expanding market of congenital frowny faces.
STMS involves the generation of a magnetic field by — in the case of NeoSynch‘s experimental device (perched on yours truly, right) I know affectionately as the Eggbeater — three spinning magnets that have been timed to pulse across the cerebral cortex of the brain at the same frequency as one’s own unique alpha brainwaves. (The alpha wave frequency ranges from 8-12 cycles per second, or hertz.)
The hope is it will get the brain’s energy circulating — you know, rhythmically “oscillating” — properly again. According to the primary published paper on sTMS, the belief is the treatment “resets thalamocortical oscillators, normalizes regulation and facilitates reemergence of intrinsic cerebral rhythms [… and] restores normal brain function.”
While this is not yet on the market yet, I can say without a doubt that post-treatment I experienced two months of being very nearly the person I always hoped I could be. No small thing.
Here’s how a Penn State (one of 16 sites where trials
were held) news release put it:
The sTMS system uses low energy, synchronized transcranial magnetic stimulation synchronized to an individual’s natural brain rhythms as opposed to the stronger, high-frequency pulses utilized with traditional rTMS. …
“Many patients can’t tolerate medications, and TMS can be an effective treatment for these patients,’ says Mahendra Bhati, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry. ‘sTMS is unique when compared to all other treatments in psychiatry since sTMS uses physiological markers of brain activity to tailor treatment. This offers the hope of individualized and potentially more effective treatment for the disabling and difficult to treat symptoms of depression.”
So how exactly does it work? Research has shown that the neuronal activity in the brains of people with depression shows abnormal brain rhythms in areas associated with depressive symptoms. sTMS therapy is based on the theory that the brain rhythms can be ‘tuned’ to a normal resting rhythm using low energy magnetic fields synchronized to an individual’s brain activity. It is believed that this will restore normal brain rhythms leading to a reduction of depression symptoms and improved mood.
sTMS was beat to the market by a similar technology known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS. Cleared by the FDA back in 2008, rTMS involves pulses of equally low-frequency electromagnetism (10-hertz) timed at 26-second intervals. It specifically targets the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex behind the left side of the forehead (which itself rests atop an important mood-regulating region of the brain).
The hope here is that the generation of small electrical currents inside the brain will “excite” dormant neurons and thereby cancel out long-term, drug-resistant depression and the non-firing biology that goes along with it.
Sessions with the Neuronetics NueroStar device (nestled up against happy lady model at left) cost from $300 to $500 a go with a recommended course of treatment hovering around a month or more.
While the effectiveness of sTMS is pending the results of ongoing trials, clinical studies prior to FDA clearance of rTMS showed the technology were, well, mildly optimistic. Since approval of rTMS, however, results observed at 42 clinical TMS therapy sites since has shown an overall positive response rate among those receiving the treatment of fifty-eight percent and a remission rate of thirty-seven percent.
NeoSync’s sTMS device (if approved by the FDA) would be a much smaller parcel that folks would theoretically be able to log out from the local CVS Pharmacy and apply themselves during home treatments. And having now experienced rTMS firsthand also (I got a “booster” treatment of five sessions to try to recapture the relief I received from sTMS to no avail), I can say that it hurts. Those I had witnessed before getting the treatments never complained or flinched, but my treatments were almost intolerably painful.
Variations on the technology are coming quickly. Running in the middle of this magnetic pack is Jerusalem-based Brainsway, which gained FDA approval for their “deep” TMS device (similar to rTMS but operating at 18 hertz with closer intervals and shorter sessions) in January, 2013.
In a press release, Brainsway’s CEO offered this:
“‘Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. For his mercy endures forever’ (Psalms 136:1). We have worked tirelessly for almost ten years to make it to this blessed day. These are glad tidings not only for Brainsway, but also for depression patients and their doctors. The broad scope of the FDA’s clearance proves conclusively that our device is both safe and effective. I believe this approval will boost awareness and acceptance of Brainsway’s Deep TMS technology not only in the U.S., but the world over, as we continue to also work towards achieving regulatory approval from healthcare authorities in Canada and other countries.”
Sure, why not. Just as long as the insurance companies get on board.