Is a ‘ brain massage’ the secret to treating depression?
Can a “brain massage” battle the potentially life-threatening effects of depression?
That’s the hope behind a relatively new treatment, called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS for short), which is showing impressive results in the treatment of depression among test cases in the UK.
TMS sends magnetic pulses of low-level electric current through specific parts of the brain, stimulating or suppressing the cells and potentially — so the theory goes — changing their behaviour. It’s been around for a while, but has only recently been fine-tuned; the National Institute for Clinical Excellence backed TMS in 2015, recognising it as a safe and effective treatment for a range of disorders including neuropathic pain, de-personalisation syndrome, depression and addiction.
For Freddie Webster, 27, it’s not an exaggeration to say TMS may have saved his life.
“I’ve battled depression for the past 10 years, combating it with drugs in the darkest moments when my thoughts turned to suicide,” says the website designer from Surrey.
“When I was first diagnosed with a depressive disorder the symptoms would begin with me feeling down about everything, having a bleak outlook, lacking energy but having heightened anxiety. Then I would descend into bouts of clinical depression. I’d lose focus, I couldn’t concentrate, my memory would suffer, it ruined relationships and jobs. I’d have suicidal thoughts.”
“When you have more than two episodes like that you’re suffering with a major depressive disorder.”
Freddie followed medical advice and tried to combat his illness through exercise, moving jobs and taking breaks. “I’d get some temporary respite from the symptoms, but the depression — or the dread of it returning — was always there. I went on to medication — but they were sticking plasters really, not a solution.”
“I was put on Sertraline (an antidepressant) which stopped working after a few months and I began to spiral into a bigger depression than ever before. At my lowest point, I could barely form sentences or think straight. My memory wouldn’t function and I felt like my mind was shutting down”.
In December 2016, Freddie’s suicidal thoughts got so bad he was referred to a mental health recovery service and put on Diazepam. As the depression took a grip once more he sought comfort in podcasts, including one by US comedian and depression sufferer Neil Brennan.
“He was talking about his personal battle with depression and described how what he called ‘magnetic brain therapy’ had cured him.”
Unaware of the term or the treatment, Freddie went online to research it. He discovered that the new treatment is not widely available in the UK — just two NHS trusts and a handful of private clinics offer it.
“I found a private clinic in London that offered the treatment and after doing some more research I contacted them. Following an assessment Freddie underwent a series of TMS treatments at the SmartTMS, lead by psychiatrist Dr Leigh Neal.
“Freddie’s depression score was one of the highest we’d ever seen,” says Dr Neal today.
To date, Dr Neal’s team has helped around 50 people using the magnetic brain treatment for a range of disorders including depression and even addiction to cocaine. “It has around an 82 per cent success rate with the patients going into remission, on average, achieving a 75 per cent reduction in the severity of symptoms of depression,” he explains.
Unlike many medical anti-depressants, TMS, has little or no sideeffects — it often works on patients for whom anti-depressants are not effective or poorly tolerated.
“There is a very small risk — around 1 in every 30,000 treatments — of convulsions or fits,” explains Dr Neal. “Between 5 and 10pc of patients report some discomfort or transient headaches, but no longterm issues after the treatment, which last on average around four weeks.”
People who suffer with epilepsy or who have any kind of metal work in their scull cannot be treated using the magnetic device. Private TMS sessions cost around £200 a time with an average of 20 sessions needed in all.
“It has the potential to change the lives of millions,” explains Dr Neal. “Right now a new, more intensive version of the treatment is undergoing testing in the USA.” In trials this upgraded TMS reduces treatment session times — currently around 40 minutes — to around 3 minutes. “For busy working men and those with a heightened suicide risk that ability to speed up the treatment times and possible results could save lives,” says Dr Neal.
After having 20 sessions of 40-minute magnetic pulse treatments over five weeks in January and February of this year, Freddie Webster is a convert. “I feel the best I have since before I started to suffer with depression when I was 16. In the space of five weeks, my symptoms completely reversed. The mental pain I had has disappeared and my suicidal thoughts have gone.
“For the first time in 10 years, I’m excited about the future and it’s all because of TMS”.
Unlike many medical anti-depressants, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, has little or no side-effects.