Background

Treatment-resistant major depressive disorder is common; repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) by use of high-frequency (10 Hz) left-side dorsolateral prefrontal cortex stimulation is an evidence-based treatment for this disorder. Intermittent theta burst stimulation (iTBS) is a newer form of rTMS that can be delivered in 3 min, versus 37·5 min for a standard 10 Hz treatment session. We aimed to establish the clinical effectiveness, safety, and tolerability of iTBS compared with standard 10 Hz rTMS in adults with treatment-resistant depression.

Methods

In this randomised, multicentre, non-inferiority clinical trial, we recruited patients who were referred to specialty neurostimulation centres based at three Canadian university hospitals (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Toronto Western Hospital, Toronto, ON, and University of British Columbia Hospital, Vancouver, BC). Participants were aged 18–65 years, were diagnosed with a current treatment-resistant major depressive episode or could not tolerate at least two antidepressants in the current episode, were receiving stable antidepressant medication doses for at least 4 weeks before baseline, and had an HRSD-17 score of at least 18. Participants were randomly allocated (1:1) to treatment groups (10 Hz rTMS or iTBS) by use of a random permuted block method, with stratification by site and number of adequate trials in which the antidepressants were unsuccessful. Treatment was delivered open-label but investigators and outcome assessors were masked to treatment groups. Participants were treated with 10 Hz rTMS or iTBS to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, administered on 5 days a week for 4–6 weeks. The primary outcome measure was change in 17-item Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRSD-17) score, with a non-inferiority margin of 2·25 points. For the primary outcome measure, we did a per-protocol analysis of all participants who were randomly allocated to groups and who attained the primary completion point of 4 weeks. This trial is registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, number NCT01887782.

Findings

Between Sept 3, 2013, and Oct 3, 2016, we randomly allocated 205 participants to receive 10 Hz rTMS and 209 participants to receive iTBS. 192 (94%) participants in the 10 Hz rTMS group and 193 (92%) in the iTBS group were assessed for the primary outcome after 4–6 weeks of treatment. HRSD-17 scores improved from 23·5 (SD 4·4) to 13·4 (7·8) in the 10 Hz rTMS group and from 23·6 (4·3) to 13·4 (7·9) in the iTBS group (adjusted difference 0·01, lower 95% CI −1·16; p=0·0011), which indicated non-inferiority of iTBS. Self-rated intensity of pain associated with treatment was greater in the iTBS group than in the 10 Hz rTMS group (mean score on verbal analogue scale 3·8 [SD 2·0] vs 3·4 [2·0] out of 10; p=0·011). Dropout rates did not differ between groups (10 Hz rTMS: 13 [6%] of 205 participants; iTBS: 16 [8%] of 209 participants); p=0·6004). The most common treatment-related adverse event was headache in both groups (10 Hz rTMS: 131 [64%] of 204; iTBS: 136 [65%] of 208).

Interpretation

In patients with treatment-resistant depression, iTBS was non-inferior to 10 Hz rTMS for the treatment of depression. Both treatments had low numbers of dropouts and similar side-effects, safety, and tolerability profiles. By use of iTBS, the number of patients treated per day with current rTMS devices can be increased several times without compromising clinical effectiveness.

Funding

Canadian Institutes of Health Research.