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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

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Updated January 13, 2006

June 1998

Are magnets really tools which can be used for health? They are becoming popular in alternative medicine catalogs and Internet sites. You can buy magnets to wear in your shoes which are supposed to help circulation. Do they really help? At this point I know of little good data suggesting that this sort of magnet does very much. Some scientists are beginning to study magnets, however.

Powerful electromagnets are being used to stimulate areas of the brain non-invasively. Stimulation of language areas helps scientists to map the brain without opening it up. Other scientists are studying the effects of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) on severe depression and other mental disorders. Harold Sacheim presented a summary of this research at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in June, 1998.

Magnetic fields produce current flow in biological tissues. Electromagnets with intense current (8000 amps) in the stimulation coil are pulsed on and off immediately outside the skull. The magnets are strong enough that pulsing them near a specific motor area of the cortex will result in movement of a specific muscle.

Recent studies suggest have looked at pulse frequencies of 10hz. vs. 1hz. on the left vs. the right side. Sacheim reported that high frequency pulses on the left side and low frequency pulses on the right side were both effective in relieving depression in preliminary studies. High frequency pulses on the right (and possibly low frequency pulses on the left) were effective in relieving mania. Other studies are investigating the effect in schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Pinhas Dannon, M.D. and his colleagues reported on a study of 20 severely depressed patients who received either traditional electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or repetitive TMS. Both treatments were effective in relieving the symptoms of depression.

Psychiatrists currently use ECT to shock the brains of severely depressed patients with high amounts of electricity. This technique has been shown to help severe depression when no other treatment could help. Perhaps Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation will emerge as a more humane procedure for these patients. At this time it is still experimental, however, and actual clinical use will require much more research.

Last updated 1/12/06

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