Today the United States Food and Drug Administration approved a device that treats depression using... magnets. About 14.8 million American adults, or 6.7 percent of the U.S. adult population, are diagnosed with major depression in a given year, and antidepressant medications often don't help.
The technology, known as deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS, involves placing a helmet filled with electromagnetic coils very close to the scalp and zapping them with pulses of electricity, which causes neurons to fire in very specific areas of the brain.
Or in plain English from the company's website:
"When the induced field is above a certain threshold, and is directed in an appropriate orientation relative to the brain's neuronal pathways, localized axonal depolarizations are produced, thus activating the neurons in the relevant brain structure."
First the machine is calibrated by placing it over a part of the brain that causes the subject's hand to move. Then the coils are aimed at the brain region under treatment. The treatment lasts about 15 to 30 minutes, repeated over several weeks, and is noninvasive—all the person feels is a slight buzzing, and there are no side effects. This makes it a more palatable relative of other treatments that also target the brain directly, such as electroconvulsive therapy (formerly electroshock), or surgically implanted electrodes.
Brainsway, a publicly traded Israeli company, has an exclusive license for the technology from the National Institutes of Health, where its two Israeli scientific cofounders developed it. Their device is already approved in Europe for clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia (negative symptoms), Parkinson’s diseases, and PTSD. Clinical trials are under way to test how well brain-zapping electromagnets could work to treat a huge range of ailments including cocaine addiction, Tourette's syndrome, Alzheimer's, stroke rehabilitation, multiple sclerosis, even ADHD.
[Top Image: Flickr user Benjamin Linh VU]