Magnetic Minds

The concept isn't new. Scientists have known for years that a jolt to a troubled brain can regulate mood. What doctors are now looking at is a gentler alternative using magnetic pulses. As wild as it may sound, this treatment may be more than just a new way to treat mental disorders. It's showing potential to fight fatigue.. And improve memory.

Whether it's extreme situations like combat or pulling an all-nighter right before an important exam, lack of sleep comes at times when we need to perform at our best. Brain researchers studying how sleep deprivation impairs memory are finding that this device can essentially wake the brain up.

"It actually gave us a hint that stimulating a particular way might actually improve working memory performance and so that's the part that we find really exciting," said Sarah Lisanby, Columbia Univiersity, New York State Psychiatric Institute.

It's called transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS. The treatment uses rapid bursts of magnetic energy to stimulate specific areas of the brain to give it a boost. Researchers believe these pulses essentially make brain cells function better.

In a study financed by the Department of Defense, researchers tested "working memory." This is what we use to recall new information such as letters flashing on the screen. Volunteers were kept awake for two days. Most of the people didn't do so well, but there were a few that did. Those were the people researchers wanted to learn more about. They figured out which parts of their brain were still working efficiently. So they went back to the sleepy participants and used TMS to stimulate that same area.

"We looked to see whether that would help these people become more resilient to sleep deprivation. And our study, our results suggested just that," said Lisanby.

The hope is this could even help lead to new ways of treating memory loss. For now, TMS is making news as a treatment for depression.

"I lost my capacity to concentrate, focus, lost interest in normal activities," said Rickey Sain, patient.

Sain's antidepressants stopped working and therapy wasn't enough for his depression. Then along came TMS and a study at Rush University Medical Center.

"I'm excited because I think it's a real major advance in our ability to treat depression," said Dr. Philip Janicak, psychiatrist, Rush University Medical Center.

Janicak has been studying TMS for 11 years. He says this non-invasive treatment is safe and effective for hard to treat depression.

"Altering electrical current in the brain in a benign fashion is developing as an alternative strategy to medication and I think TMS is very good," said Janicak.

In this study, some people received TMS. Others got a sham procedure. The 45-minute treatments were given five days a week. After four to six weeks, those who received TMS were twice as likely to report improvement in their mental state compared to who had the sham procedure.

"There's a sense of well being starting to return," said Sain. He is back on an antidepressant and also receiving TMS. He says his depression is lifting.

"The medication cannot do what this treatment does. It can not do that," said Sain.

Most patients may feel a little discomfort during the treatments. Some do get headaches but most tolerate it fairy well. The study Dr. Janicak headed up was paid for by the company that makes a TMS device. The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved TMS for depression. Panel members have raised questions in the past about it's effectiveness.
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