Depression that resists drugs and counseling takes a heavy toll on relationships and wages. But the message from mother, wife, and former NYC advertising executive Martha Rhodes, who has struggled with depression for decades, is loud and clear: “Don’t give up! There are alternatives that can help.” For Rhodes, a non-drug therapy called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) made all the difference.
TMS, the newest science-backed approach for stubborn cases of depression, invites patients to recline in comfy spa chairs for a series of magnetic taps to their foreheads. The procedure delivers energy from outside the body to release mood-lifting chemicals in the brain.
“Neurostar’s electrical current travels only about one inch, but fortunately that’s enough to reach the target area—the brain’s left front side that often shows low function on imaging scans of people with depression,” says psychiatrist Scott Aaronson, Medical Director of TMS Services at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore, who has treated about 125 patients who failed multiple drug therapies in his clinic.
TMS is not electroconvulsive shock therapy à la One-Flew-Over-the-Cuckoo’s-Nest. Besides the spa chairs, patients are awake during the 45-minute treatments, and able to resume normal activities immediately afterward.
“I’m delighted to have another tool in my bag to help those with hard-to-treat depression. TMS is approved for stand-alone therapy, and we also see about a 62 percent improvement rate (30 percent for remission) when adding daily TMS for six weeks on top of medication,” says Dr. Aaronson.
Rhodes tried drugs and psychotherapy for years before seeing an ad for TMS in a local magazine. She recounts: “Depression ambushed me. I assumed medications and counseling were doing their job and that I was at fault for still wanting to jump off a bridge. I had never heard the term ‘treatment resistant’ and it nearly cost my life. TMS takes commitment, trust, and patience: I was about halfway through my treatments when I woke up one day and noticed that I felt lighter. No angels, no marching band, but the subtle sense that I can manage this day. Then I started answering phone calls and going out to dinner and I thought: Oh my gosh, I must be getting better. TMS is safe. I absolutely recommend that people with depression consider this treatment.”
TMS is covered by many insurance plans and included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Practice Guidelines for Major Depressive Disorder, a compilation of evidenced-based recommendations for assessing and treating the disorder. In coming years, Aaronson and others believe the non-invasive, non-drug approach may lead to new therapies for bipolar disorder, psychotic diseases, and neurological problems such as tinnitus and headache.