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New brain zapper could help treat depression in three-minute daily bursts, study claims

New brain zapper could help treat depression in three-minute daily bursts, study claims

A three-minute daily burst of a mild electromagnetic current can alleviate difficult-to-treat depression, according to a new study.

Patients noticed their symptoms improved significantly, including those who had tried up to six types of antidepressants unsuccessfully, and some remained symptom-free for at least six months.

The main treatments for anxiety and depression are talk therapies, such as counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication.

NHS waiting lists for counseling are often long, while drug treatments may not work – a UK study found that 55 per cent of those prescribed antidepressants by their GP did not respond. The drugs also carry the risk of side effects.

Patients noticed their symptoms improved significantly, including those who had tried up to six types of antidepressants unsuccessfully, and some remained symptom-free for at least six months

The new treatment — intermittent theta burst stimulation (iTBS) — is a form of brain stimulation using an external magnetic field.

It differs from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a controversial treatment for major depression in which a small electrical current is passed through the brain while the patient is under general anesthesia, and which in some cases has been linked to long-term memory loss.

For iTBS, which does not require anesthetic, a paddle-like device with an electromagnetic coil is placed close to the scalp.

A current is then passed through the device, causing bursts of electromagnetic energy every eight seconds.

This targets the dorsolateral left prefrontal cortex region of the brain, which is involved in mood regulation.

All patients in the study had previously failed to respond to at least two antidepressants, some of whom had tried as many as six.

All patients in the study had previously failed to respond to at least two antidepressants, some of whom had tried as many as six.

People with depression appear to be less active in this area. The treatment, which takes just three minutes, painlessly stimulates nerve cells in the brain. Patients typically have about 20 sessions over four weeks.

A trial of iTBS in 30 patients at the University Hospital of Nantes, in France, reported in the journal Brain Stimulation, showed that after treatment, depression symptoms were reduced by at least half in 37 percent of participants — and 19 percent of them went to remission.

This remission rate was 27 percent higher than in a comparison group that received repeated cranial stimulation, another form of brain stimulation that takes up to 40 minutes to perform. All patients in the study had previously failed to respond to at least two antidepressants, some had tried as many as six.

No serious side effects were reported – headache was the most common complaint associated with treatment.

“During the month of stimulation, we saw a clear decline in depression,” the researchers said. ‘Our study suggests that this stimulation provides long-term improvement in depression and quality of life in highly resistant depression.’

Now a new clinical trial of the treatment is underway, involving 60 patients at the University Hospital of Northern Norway.

During this study, patients receive three minutes of iTBS or placebo treatment every day for two weeks and their symptoms before and after are compared.

“This is clearly good news,” said Carmine Pariante, a professor of psychiatry at King’s College London.

‘The results are very good. We now need to see if this new treatment is as good as ECT, the most effective treatment for depressed people who do not respond to all available antidepressants.’

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