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Magnet therapy shows promise for severe depression

Ruth Wright
One patient, Ruth Wright, described the treatment, "like a tapping on my skull."   
March 20, 1998
Web posted at: 2:05 p.m. EDT (1405 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- An experimental treatment for severe depression, in which powerful magnets are applied to patients' heads, is showing signs of success, a medical journal reports.

Emory University researchers report in the journal Psychiatric Annals that more than half of the patients treated improved with no serious side effects.

Depression affects 37 million Americans. It is estimated one in four women and one in 10 men suffer from depression.

In the experimental treatment, doctors use a powerful electromagnet to stimulate a specific area of the brain. It seems to work best in the left front portion of the brain, believed to be underactive in people with depression. The treatment lasts only about five minutes.

"The electromagnet induces electric current in the brain and we know that that causes brain cells to fire, to become active, to do things, to kick out brain chemicals which are called neurotransmitters," said Dr. Charles Epstein of Emory University.

ECT machine
ECT is another treatment used on people with severe depression   

While the magnetic therapy is being studied it is only available for people with severe depression, said Dr. William McDonald of Emory University.

"The people that we've treated have far and away been very ill people. These are people who have otherwise gotten ECT (electro convulsive therapy)," he said. ECT is a controversial treatment, usually tried as a last resort, in which electric pulses cause a seizure,.

One patient, Ruth Wright tried ECT but suffered memory loss. She also tried anti-depressants, but they didn't work, so she turned to magnetic therapy. She's had it for a year and said she's much improved, even happy.

"Situations which would have thrown me a year ago, I can handle now with some degree of reasonable behavior," said Wright.

The treatment is experimental and the long-term effects are unknown; researchers say seizures are a possibility. As with other treatments, it is not unusual for patients to relapse once treatment ends. The researchers aren't sure yet if it will help people with mild depression.

Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland contributed to this report.


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