Treating Mental Illness with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Imagine a hand-held device emitting magnetic pulses that, when applied to certain parts of the brain, could help treat everything from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder. It probably sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, right? But what if I told you that what I was actually describing was a very real therapy that has emerged in the mental health field over the past decade or so?

This technology is called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), and while it’s still a relatively new type of treatment for mental illness, studies have already found promising results for it. The process itself is relatively simple: an electro-magnetic coil is placed against a person’s head and emits a controlled magnetic field that stimulates the neurons in a specific region of the brain. Although this treatment has been used successfully with some individuals struggling with mental illness, the actual biology behind how and why it works remains somewhat unclear.

As with any other treatment, there are some risks that come with this procedure, no matter how non-invasive it is. Although the procedure is generally very safe (especially compared to electroconvulsive therapy or invasive surgery), some have reported headaches, lightheadedness and general discomfort at the site of stimulation as short-term side effects. Even then, these side effects are reported much less in subsequent TMS treatment sessions. In addition to this, muscle spasms, twitching, and tingling have been reported as a side-effect of TMS therapy, albeit only very temporary ones. The reason for this is that the magnetic field produced during therapy can also affect the motor cortex of the brain. In fact, this area is actually sometimes stimulated purposefully to find the person’s unique motor threshold, or the minimum frequency of stimulation needed to cause a single involuntary muscle movement. This baseline is referred to as 100% motor threshold, and is an important factor in the treatment itself. This is because studies are still being done to determine which motor threshold is the most effective when using TMS therapy to treat mental illnesses. For example, one study found that using a motor threshold of 120% is the most useful when using TMS to treat depression, while another study found a motor threshold of 110% to be most useful. The frequency of the magnetic pulses is also a highly debated factor in the treatment, usually ranging between 1Hz and 20Hz. There is still no consensus on which numbers work best as a whole yet because the effectiveness seems to vary for different participants, and any patterns that have been suggested were supported with mixed findings.

Because of the risks, this procedure is usually not done as a first measure, but as an alternative option for people who have tried other types of therapy/medication for mental illness and failed to see any substantial results. Additionally, there are some factors that can make it unlikely, and sometimes even impossible for a person to undergo TMS therapy. Since it is a magnet-based procedure, metallic implants in a person’s head can cause the procedure to be too unsafe to perform. If someone has a higher risk for some of the more uncommon side effects of TMS therapy such as seizures, mania, or hearing loss without proper ear protection, this may also disqualify them from being able to undergo TMS therapy. Make sure to talk to your doctor to evaluate your own unique risks before pursuing this kind of treatment.

Finally, since this is such a new form of treatment, the long-term effects of TMS therapy – both good and bad – have yet to be determined. However, with treatments remaining effective for as much as three weeks between sessions, TMS therapy remains a very promising step in the future of mental health treatment.

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