The first noninvasive brain stimulator has been approved to treat depression. This device beams magnetic pulses through the skull, triggering small electrical charges that spark brain cells to fire. The therapy named transcranial magnetic stimulation or shortly TMS is not recommended for everyone. The FDA approved it only for those patients who saw no improvement with their first antidepressant, offering them a different option than trying pill after pill.

Developed by Neuronetics Inc., NeuroStar therapy was found to carry no risks associated with other invasive depression treatments such as implanted electrodes or the treatment of last resort, shock therapy.

With at least one in five depression patients being treatment-resistant, it is certain there is a need for innovative approaches. Now it must been seen just how much benefit TMS offers.

The prescription-only NeuroStar has been approved by the FDA based on data that showed that patients who were treated with TMS did modestly better than when they unknowingly received a placebo treatment that mimicked the magnet.

Benefits of this treatment must be confirmed considering the high price. TMS is expected to cost from $6,000 to $10,000, which is far more expensive than medications yet thousands of dollars cheaper than other invasive depression treatments.

TMS been used by neuroscientists for years in their brain studies. It is now being studied in stroke rehabilitation and other brain disorders.
How it works

To manage depression, doctors aim the magnet at the left front of the head, the prefrontal cortex. First top of the head needs to be zapped to find a patient's motor-control region, and then carefully move the magnet 5 centimeters forward. When this is done, the NeuroStar starts beaming about 3,000 pulses a minute during a 40-minute treatment, done about five times a week for up to six weeks.

The researchers believe that stimulating brain cells in the prefrontal cortex triggers a chain reaction that also stimulates deeper brain regions involved with mood.

TMS was found to be safe. Study participants experienced no seizures or memory problems that often occur in shock therapy or any other reactions throughout the body. The only complaint on the treatment was headaches.

The initial study showed a modest benefit. About 24% of the study participants who got TMS scored significantly better on standard depression measures after six weeks, compared with 12% who got the placebo, which is the same response that patients receiving a single antidepressant had. However, some reported remarkable results.
An independent study by the National Institutes of Health that will be tracking 260 patients is on the way to get more clear answers.