Three-minute magnetic brain stimulation treatments can reduce depression symptoms: study

A three-minute treatment involving magnetic stimulation of the brain works just as well as the standard form of such therapy for people with hard-to-treat depression, a new study has found.

The success of the intermittent theta-burst stimulation (iTBS) therapy could greatly increase the number of patients treated, according to one Canadian psychiatrist who provides the treatment at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“A significant number of people can stand to benefit from this treatment that is an alternative to medications and works when medications have not worked,” Dr. Daniel Blumberger, the co-director of CAMH’s Temerty Centre for Therapeutic Brain Intervention, told CTV News.

Theta-burst stimulation is a more powerful type of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), a proven form of treatment for illnesses like depression.

A study co-authored by Dr. Blumberger and published in The Lancet found that theta-burst stimulation can reduce symptoms of severe depression just as well as the standard rTMS treatment.

In the study of about 400 patients from Ontario and British Columbia with treatment-resistant depression, 49 per cent experienced a reduction in symptoms after receiving the three-minute therapy delivered daily over four to six weeks.

On average, the benefits of the treatment lasted between four to six months, the study found.

The original treatment uses a magnetic-field-generating device that subjects the brain to low-frequency magnetic pulses. The pulses elicit a response in the brain’s neurons and change the functioning of the brain circuits involved, according to CAMH.

While rTMS typically takes up to 37.5 minutes per session, the high-frequency theta-burst stimulation, delivered through a hand-held wand, takes only three minutes.

Dr. Blumberger said the standard rTMS treatment can accommodate six to eight patients per day. But the number of patients treated with the more efficient theta-burst stimulation could be “increased by three-to-four fold,” he said.

Shelly Hoffer from Barrie, Ont., 43, said she first sought treatment for depression when she was 21, but nothing really seemed to work until she discovered rTMS three years ago.

“I feel like I’m being more proactive about treatment for my depression than I am being reactive,” she told CTV News. “It’s been a great answer to what I needed.”

Hoffer said rTMS has given her relief from depression without any side-effects of drugs or downtime associated with other types of treatment.

“It is an amazing answer. I don’t get headaches, I can drive myself home,” she said. “It is so much easier on my body and my brain.”

Gail Bellissimo, another patient who has received rTMS therapy, said she has now gone a full year without treatments and feels great.

When she first spoke to CTV News three years ago, the Mississauga, Ont., mother said she had tried “just about every drug out there” to treat her depression, but nothing worked until she tried rTMS.

The latest study offers new hope for an estimated 600,000 people in Canada with treatment-resistant depression.

However, only two provinces currently fund transcranial magnetic stimulation therapies: Saskatchewan and Quebec. Alberta is expected to roll out a TMS program and Dr. Blumberger said that Ontario is looking into funding pilot clinics that offer the therapy.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip