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Can Magnets Make You Stop Dwelling On Depressing Thoughts?

A new study shows how magnet therapy can help rewire the depressed brain.

Can Magnets Make You Stop Dwelling On Depressing Thoughts?
[Photo: Flickr user Ryan Steele]

Magnets. Precisely how they work remains a mystery of modern science, yet their usefulness only seems to expand as time goes on. Consider this: Magnets have been shown to alleviate depression and other mental ailments. A new study may have just shined some light on exactly how.

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Using a process known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College were able to reduce rumination among depressed patients–the tendency for people to dwell on thoughts related to their depression or its causes.

Using a sample of 17 people with depression and 35 without it, the researchers were able to show that a five-week course of TMS helped alter brain activity in a way that was conducive to less depressive thinking. Specifically, they looked at “the default mode network” of people’s brains in a resting, non-focused state. Apparently, these parts of the brain are frequently “hyperconnected” in people with depression and those excess connections are believed to correlate with increased rumination.

What this study suggests is that TMS can reduce the number of those connections and make the depressed brain look more like the brain of somebody without depression.

Explains Scientific American:

Not all patients benefited, but those who did revealed a pattern. Patients who improved no longer had too many connections; their scans were indistinguishable from those of healthy subjects. In addition, patients who initially had tighter links between resting-state regions were more likely to respond to TMS—further evidence that this finding explains how TMS treats depression.

One thing the write-up doesn’t specify is how many depressed patients saw the reduced connections, so it’s not clear how statistically significant the results were. It’s also worth noting that this study doesn’t claim that depression was alleviated in these patients, only that the number of connections in certain parts of the brain were affected by TMS. The correlation between depressive rumination and these neural connections is beyond the scope of this study, although previous research has supported this idea.

While this research isn’t a major scientific breakthrough, it does offer some helpful suggestions for the potential treatment of depression. With a bit more exploration, it could help fine-tune and customize treatment for patients.

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As the Scientific American write-up points out:

A patient could undergo a quick fMRI scan, for example, to learn whether his or her brain is hyperconnected—and if not, avoid a costly and time-consuming regimen of TMS. Study co-author Marc Dubin, a physician and neuroscientist at Weill Cornell, notes that targeting a person’s specific abnormalities could help individuals find an effective treatment more quickly.

Pretty amazing.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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