Wave of the magnetic wand lifting spirits
- August 10, 2013
Main... Jan Steele. Inset... Professor Paul Fitzgerald, a researcher at Monash Alfred Psychiatry Centre operates the magnetic seizure therapy machine which is used to treat depression. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
A pioneering medical treatment using intense magnetic fields is achieving dramatic results for patients with drug-resistant chronic depression.
The Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) clinic opened at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre in 2011 and has already treated about 100 patients with a long history of mental illness.
The clinic is reporting a 50 per cent success rate, as those previously crippled by depression are able to return to work and reconnect with friends and family.
After living with depression her entire life, Jan Steele, 57, said undergoing magnetic stimulation had been like winning the lottery. This weekend she is driving to Canberra for a weekend away with her husband. Before her treatment, she would often spend Saturday and Sunday in bed.
''The enjoyment I get out of life is outstanding now,'' she said.
Targeted at the about 30 per cent of people who have treatment-resistant depression, TMS involves using an extremely focused magnetic field. As the patient sits awake in an armchair, a wand containing a plastic-coated coil is placed close to their scalp - creating a magnetic field that stimulates activity in the brain. The treatment takes about four to six weeks and involves about 20 or 30 daily sessions lasting 45 minutes, although researchers have been successfully trialling a six-day treatment.
Centre deputy director Professor Paul Fitzgerald said they believed TMS increased activity between areas of the brain involved in control of mood and emotion. He said patients could remain depression-free for several months or even a number of years before they had to return for further sessions.
''If they get better the first time, more than 90 per cent of people will respond again if you treat them,'' he said.
Chair of Psychiatry at Deakin University Michael Berk said TMS was one of the safest treatments in the field of psychiatry. But like other depression treatments, including lithium and electroconvulsive therapy (ETC), Professor Berk said, researchers do not fully understand how it works - and why it works in some people and not others.
''There's no [depression] treatment that works for everybody and we don't have ways of predicting who will benefit from what treatment,'' he said.
Experts at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre are studying these unanswered questions and also the possibility TMS may treat other conditions, including schizophrenia and autism. Professor Fitzgerald said eventually he would like to see the TMS success rate in treating depression rise to about 70 per cent.
Until then, Jan Steele remains one of the lucky ones. Ms Steele clearly remembers the third day of her treatment, when an unfamiliar thought struck her. ''I was thinking it was a beautiful day,'' she said. Depression, she said, was like carrying a wet blanket on your shoulders.
At the St Kilda Road clinic, the therapy is provided free to public patients but there are limited places. This year proceeds from the de Castella run for mental health research on August 25 will help more people gain access to the program.
raise.com.au for information.