Low-frequency shock treatment could treat depression

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as shock therapy, is still often shown as something terrifying and torturous that can mangle your brain and turn you into a blabbering fool. But while decades ago it was used without regard for patients’ pain thresholds or desire to retain memories, these days it’s a more civilised affair actually involving anaesthetic. And for people with severe depression, it can literally be a lifesaver: Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, who has bipolar disorder, says it stopped her from feeling suicidal.

But sending an electric current through the brain to trigger a short seizure is still a last resort. So scientists started to wonder if there was a less intense way to help the more than half of depressed people for whom anti-depressants don’t work.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Weill Cornell Medical College think that low field magnetic stimulation (LFMS) might be the answer. This involves using magnetic fields that are not as strong as in ECT, but are a higher frequency.

As they report in a paper for the journal Biological Psychiatry, they made a portable LFMS device and tested it in a small-scale double-blind trial against a device that looked the same but didn’t deliver any stimulation. The depressed patients who received the treatment for 20 minutes reported a significant improvement in mood, whereas the patients who had received the fake treatment for the same amount of time reported no change.

The study’s lead author Dr Michael Rohan says more research is underway to discover the best way to use LFMS for depression, and to find out how long its effects might last.

Image via Filter Forge’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley