Device for Depression Criticized
FDA Advisory Panel Sees Marginal Effect of TMS in Depression Treatment
WebMD News Archive
Jan. 29, 2007 -- An FDA advisory panel on Friday questioned the value of a
new brain stimulation device for depression, potentially damaging its chances
for FDA approval.
Members of the panel expressed doubts that the machine, called NeuroStar,
helps depressed patients or provides any advantage over placebo treatment.
The device looks much like a dentist’s chair with metal prongs attached to a
It works on the same principle as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) --
commonly called "electric shock treatment" -- a treatment usually
reserved for severely depressed patients who do not respond to antidepressant
drugs or therapy.
But instead of using electric shocks, NeuroStar stimulates the brain by
sending a focused magnetic field into the brain from outside the skull -- a
treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS.
In 2005, the FDA approved an implantable nerve stimulation device made by
Cyberonics to treat depression.
The implantable device uses vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, to stimulate
the vagus nerve (which runs from the neck to the brain and relays messages to
the brain) rather than the brain directly. VNS is already used to treat
Neuronetics, the company that manufactures NeuroStar, presented TMS as an
advantage to implantable devices because it does not require invasive
The company sought to show that the device is equivalent to ECT but with
fewer side effects and is more accessible to patients.
“Many patients cannot avail themselves of (ECT) ... cannot afford this
treatment,” says Philip G. Janicak, MD, a researcher who conducted clinical
trials of TMS for the company.
Also, “Only 8% of psychiatrists provide electroconvulsive treatment,” says
Janicak, a professor of psychiatry at Rush Presbyterian Medical Center in
But the advisory panel was generally unimpressed with the company’s studies,
even though they showed a slight statistical advantage in treating depression
symptoms vs. dummy therapy after six weeks of treatment.
Several panelists expressed dismay that patients showed no improvement on
some depression scales and only minor improvement on the ones that did show a
“Perhaps a reasonable person could question whether there has been an effect
at all,” says Thomas G. Brott, a neurologist from Mayo Medical School in
Jacksonville, Fla., and the advisory panel's chairman.