BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Investigators at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and colleagues at other universities have launched a study of a new, low-strength magnetic field as a potential therapy for depression.
The new technique uses a lower magnetic-field strength than Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS), a magnetic field therapy provided at UAB since 2010.
Investigators think the new technique, referred to as low-field magnetic stimulation (LFMS), might offer the same benefits as rTMS with less cost and fewer side effects.
“About 10 years ago, it was observed that patients with depression who underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) often had a reduction of their depression symptoms and in general felt better,” said Richard Shelton, M.D., professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry and lead investigator of the study. “In 2011, rTMS became the first FDA-approved therapy for depression using magnetic fields, and the new LFMS may be the next generation of therapies in this area.”
Participants in the study will undergo a 20-minute exposure to a low strength magnetic field four times during the month-long study. Study subjects will lie on a table with their head resting in a magnetic field-generating cylinder. The magnetic field is less than that used in rTMS and less than a typical MRI scan.
“It appears that magnetic therapy stimulates neurons in the brain, causing them to become active and grow new synaptic connections,” Shelton said. “This helps patients better control and regulate their emotions.”
Shelton says LFMS has no known side effects and eliminates the major complaint with rTMS – noise. rTMS uses a focused beam of magnetic energy directed at a specific spot on the head, which can lead to an unpleasant noise level and headaches. LFMS should also be a much less expensive alternative.
“If it proves to be effective, this device should be affordable enough that many psychiatrists would have one in their office, making the therapy accessible and economical” said Shelton. “rTMS is effective but expensive, and there are only two rTMS systems in Birmingham.”
Shelton said as many as two-thirds of patients with depression may respond well to magnetic therapy. Among the goals of the study is to see how rapidly the therapy becomes effective in relieving symptoms, as well as how long the effect persists before re-treatment is required. Shelton says the long-range goal of magnetic therapy is to get patients with depression off medications.
Shelton is looking for adult subjects with depression who have not responded well to alternative therapies such as medication. For more information, contact 205-934-2484.
The study is funded by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), one of the National Institutes of Health.