Sunday, August 29, 2010

Magnetic fields used to treat depression, bipolar disorder, TBI, autism

From The Age in Australia. In the picture, Kevin’s bipolar disorder is treated with TMS at The Alfred hospital in Australia.

A pioneering treatment using magnetic fields to stimulate brain activity has helped people with depression live medication-free and is now being trialled on autistic young people, patients with bipolar disorder and those with traumatic brain injuries.

Doctors at The Alfred hospital say transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has a high success rate, with fewer side effects than more invasive treatments such as electric shock therapy.

Patients are fully conscious and do not need hospital admission. Some are even having the 40-minute sessions in their lunch break. A course of treatment is typically five sessions a week for four weeks.

Magnetic pulses applied to a coil on the patient's head deliver a gentle electric current that fires up nerve cells in the brain.

While previously the procedure was tested for use in combating depression and schizophrenia, The Alfred is now trialling ''deep TMS'' for disorders such as autism and Asperger's in patients as young as 18. The therapy uses a coil that stimulates an area of the brain which controls social functioning.

Paul Fitzgerald, deputy director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre, said the treatment had been able to change the way people with the disorders related to others by helping them better read body language and verbal cues.

''We're looking at trying to improve their capacity for social decision-making, their capacity to judge other people's individual emotional state so they can make better judgments in social settings, which is one of the core problems for people with autism,'' Professor Fitzgerald said.

''If you look at brain imaging studies of patients with autism, if they're required to do tasks that involve making social judgments, particular networks in their brain are just not as active as they should be.''

Patients with bipolar disorder and those suffering severe depression after head injuries sustained in road accidents are also seeing results in as little as four weeks.

Another trial is looking at using the technology to help people beat addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Most patients with depression who have had the treatment found it lessened their symptoms and improved appetite and sleep patterns.

Professor Fitzgerald said the therapy had become a mainstream mental health procedure in the United States with up to 250 centres offering it as a standard clinical treatment.

But in Australia it is limited to research trials. A number of funding applications to state and federal governments have been made in the hope of expanding the program to treat up to 200 people a year. At present, about 20 patients are treated annually in clinical trials.

Professor Fitzgerald said if it were more widely available it could be a treatment option for people who were either sensitive to medication's side effects or unwilling to undergo more invasive methods such as electroconvulsive therapy, which requires a general anaesthetic.

''It gives patients a greater degree of choice in the types of treatment techniques they can access,'' he said.

Louise Newman, president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, said that while early results of TMS trials suggested it had the potential to be an important treatment, it was too early to say if it was effective enough to be used more widely.