By Letitia Stein, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Tuesday, March 2, 2010
TAMPA — The latest treatment for depression sounds like something out of science fiction: Using an electromagnetic coil to beam pulsations through the skull to stimulate a part of the brain thought to be involved in depression.
Yet doctors using the therapy say the wildest thing about transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, may be its potential to help some of the millions of Americans battling depression.
For patients who don't respond to drugs and counseling, TMS offers an alternative to electric shock therapy, still used to treat depression despite its reputation in popular culture as a barbaric treatment. Today, patients receive general anesthesia before having what doctors now call electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, so they don't feel any pain when physicians use electric current to cause short seizures in the brain.
Many physicians consider ECT the gold standard treatment for severe depression that doesn't respond to other remedies. It is considered safe, but side effects can include short-term memory loss.
By contrast, the primary discomfort associated with TMS is a staccato tapping noise, resembling the racket of a woodpecker. Nor does it have ECT's image problem.
"TMS is far higher in acceptability to the patients and a lot less invasive," said Dr. Patrick Marsh, who recently began administering the treatment through the University of South Florida's Neurotherapies Clinic.
"We're targeting a specific area of the brain, as opposed to giving them medication, where you target the entire body," he said. "Or when they are having (electrically induced) seizures, which affect the whole brain."
Supporters of TMS, which has been researched as a possible treatment for depression since the mid-1990s, say it can help about half of patients who weren't helped by prior therapies. But questions linger about its effectiveness, both in the long- and short-term.
Another consideration is cost, which can reach $10,000 and isn't routinely covered by insurance since it is relatively new and its availability limited…