Magnetic Relief

The UW has been a leader for many years in finding new treatments for depression, according to Psychiatry Professor David Dunner. UW research on brain medications-beginning before the development of drugs like Prozac-is now based at the Center for Anxiety and Depression, which Dunner directs.

"There's still a considerable stigma that prevents some people from seeking therapy," Dunner explains, despite the rising success rate. "As we develop new treatments, we've been more effective in helping people get better."

Dunner sees magnetic stimulation as an experimental therapy that shows promise, part of a broad approach to treating depression. "A percentage of people won't respond to medicine, so we've had to develop therapies for these medication-resistant patients," Dunner explains. "ECT, though effective, is cumbersome. Something like magnetic stimulation could be helpful as a step before ECT."

Warning signs of depression

When magnetic stimulation was first used in 1985, it was for patients in the rehabilitation ward, not for those battling depression. By stimulating the motor cortex with a single pulse, doctors could make a subject's finger twitch. Developed as a diagnostic tool, magnetic stimulation allowed physicians to make precise measurements of the time between an electrical stimulus and a muscular response, a guide to charting possible spinal-cord damage. Other doctors used magnetic stimulation to map brain function, and some researchers began to think of it as a possible treatment for depression about six years ago.

Avery became interested in magnetic stimulation when he heard Alvaro Pascal-Leone of Harvard Medical School speak about the procedure at a conference in 1996. When he looked at the early data, Avery realized that only one other treatment-ECT-could cause so rapid a decrease in depression in a short period of time.

"Even though I administer ECT and see people have miraculous transformations afterwards, I also see its limitations due to confusion and temporary memory loss," Avery explains. "The possibility of achieving the benefits of ECT without the side effects is very appealing."

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