When it comes to treating depression, brain stimulation treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) have often proven to be effective. However, like antidepressant medications, they typically have delayed onset. For instance, a patient may receive several weeks of regular ECT treatments before a full response is achieve. Therefore, there has been an impetus to develop antidepressant treatments that will rapidly improve mood. Low field magnetic stimulation (LFMS) is one such potential new treatment with rapid mood-elevating effects, as reported by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Weill Cornell Medical College.
LFMS isn’t like any other current treatment, using magnetic fields that are a fraction of the strength but at higher frequency than the electromagnetic fields used in TMS and ECT. Indeed, the potential antidepressant properties of this method of treatment were discovered by accident, while researchers conducted an imaging study in healthy volunteers. This led the study’s first author, Dr. Michael Rohan, to conduct a preliminary study in which they identified the imaging parameters that seemed to be causing the antidepressant effect. They then designed and constructed a portable LFMS device, which delivers a low strength, high frequency, electromagnetic field waveform to the brain. They then tested the device in depressed patients, the results of which are published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry. A total of 63 currently depressed patients, diagnosed with either major depressive disorder or bipolar, participated in the study, and were then randomised to receive a single, 20-minute treatment of real LFMS or sham LFMS. Since neither the patients nor researchers knew which treatment each person was actually receiving, the true effect of the LFMS could be accurately measured.
Among patients who received real LFMS, there was an immediate and substantial improvement in mood, compared to those who received the sham treatment. There were also no reported side effects. This finding suggests that LFMS may have the potential to provide immediate relief of depressed mood, perhaps even in emergency situations. It also confirms the success of the device’s design. This idea, that weak electrical stimulation of the brain could potentially produce beneficial effects on depression symptoms, is surprising, yet the data does make a compelling case that this is a safe approach, one which should be studied further. Dr. Rohan confirmed that addition research is currently underway to find the best parameters for LFMS use in the clinical treatment of depression. Further research will also be necessary to evaluate the effects of multiple people compared to single treatments. and how long the antidepressant effects last following treatment.