Magnets May be the Key to Treating Severe Depression

A clinical trial at UT Southwestern may change the way physicians treat depression with a treatment that has similar impacts to the often stigmatized electroconvulsive therapy.

ECT has often caused temporary memory loss in its treatment of depression, but a new form of brain simulation may avoid the risks and have similar impacts. The new treatment, called Magnet Seizure Therapy, uses magnetic fields to reduce depression without cognitive side effects, meaning it could become a primary treatment for the severely depressed.

UT Southwestern is partnering with the University of Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in a five-year clinical trial funded by the National Institute of Mental Health where the effectiveness and side effects of ECT and MST are measured on 260 patients with depression.

“Both ECT and MST treatments are very different than what we saw in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” said UT Southwestern’s Dr. Mustafa M. Husain, Principal Investigator for the U.S. portion of the trial via release. “I hope, one day, MST will become an available treatment for our severely depressed, melancholic, catatonic, even acutely suicidal patients.”

ECT has been around since ancient Egypt, when electric fish were used to treat pain. Today, electronic currents are sent through the brain to initiate brief seizures, which has an unexplained positive impact on major depression. But the memory loss and decrease in cognitive function have scared off widespread use.

MST is similar to ECT, but uses magnetic fields instead of electric current to cause controlled seizures. Because the magnetic fields are able to better localize the seizure, researchers believe it will cause fewer side effects.

“I have seen some desperate patients over the last 20 to 30 years who weren’t being helped by their antidepressants but wouldn’t try ECT,” said Husain, Director of the Neuromodulation Research & Therapeutics Program at UT Southwestern via release. “MST may be the next evolution in brain stimulation for severe depression.”

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