Helmet therapy provides treatment for depression

January 12, 2010 8:07:32 PM PST
A novel treatment is offering new hope to Bay Area patients suffering from depression. It is not a drug, but a therapy directed at the inner workings of the brain.

Brenda Keeran is still working out issues with her therapist, but the San Mateo grandmother says she is miles away from the depression that had paralyzed her life for decades.

"I would spend weeks in bed, unable to do anything but use the restroom, not having the strength to really go anywhere," she recalled.

She says some of the anti-depressants she was prescribed had left her feeling suicidal. So, earlier this year, Keeran opted for a new and radically different treatment called trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

A machine resembling a dentist's chair, called Neuro-Star, delivers electrical stimulation to Keeran's brain using magnetic pulses similar to an MRI. The pulses are focused on specific neural pathways in the brain. The signal strength is controlled by her psychiatrist, Dr. Travis Svensson.

Svensson says that while the concept bears some resemblance to traditional electro-therapy, it actually works in a different way.

"Whereas other therapies like shock therapy create a seizure to release neurotransmitters, the goal for TMA is not to create a seizure," he explained. "We're not trying to release neurotransmitters. We're trying to energize nerve tracks in the brain."

Svensson says that in trials with patients who do not respond to antidepressant medication, about half showed improvement in their symptoms after TMS treatment.

"Probably, what the TMS is doing, is increasing the frequency of firing and the ease with which nerves can communicate with each other," Svensson continued.

The results were promising enough that the FDA recently approved the use of TMS for clinical treatment of depression. Patients undergo half-hour sessions daily, for about a month and a half, while still continuing their normal psychotherapy.

Studies found the improvement lasted at least six months in most cases.

"We're pulling them out of the depression, but whether they stay on an anti-depressant to prevent depression from coming back, that's a decision for their psychiatrist," Svensson said.

Keeran considers herself a long-term success story and says the initial treatment has allowed her to function normally without medications.

"After the first couple of days, I had energy I didn't have before," Keeran said. "I gave up my anti-depressants after the first treatment, and haven't touched one since."

Side effects of the treatment can include headache-like symptoms that are typically treated with over-the-counter pain medicine. The other issue is cost, which is typically about $9,000 and may or may not be covered by individual insurance plans.

Written and produced by Tim Didion