May 4, 2010 -- A controversial new treatment for depression, rTMS, helps some patients, a rigorous
government-funded study finds.
The treatment is called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. It's
basically an electromagnet. When applied to the skull just behind the left
forehead, the device induces a tiny electric current in a part of the brain
linked to depression.
Because the device carries little risk, the FDA in October 2008
cleared the device for treatment of major clinical depression in adults who
got no relief from first-line antidepressant treatment. But questions remained about
whether the device really helps depression.
The biggest hurdle to studying the device was finding an inactive placebo to
compare it with. In earlier studies, patients and researchers had no trouble
telling the real device from a sham. That's important because the placebo
effect -- the tendency of some people to get better from fake treatment -- is
strong in clinical trials of depression treatments.
After much struggle, the researchers used earphones and electrodes to mimic
the actual sound, sight, and feel of a real rTMS session, says study researcher
Sarah Lisanby, MD, chief of the brain stimulation and therapeutic modulation
division at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric
Lisanby and colleagues signed up 190 people who had failed to get relief
from at least one antidepressant medication; many had tried several different
treatments. They received either rTMS or the sham treatment for three
The result: 14% of those treated with rTMS had remission of their
depression, compared with only 5% of those getting the sham treatment.
Those whose depression did not get better after three weeks entered a
continuation trial in which the sham treatment was discontinued and everyone
got rTMS. Thirty percent of the patients in this continuation study had
remission of their depression.
"The effect sizes we report with rTMS are about on par with what you see
with antidepressant medications," Lisanby tells WebMD. "The difference is that
to get into our study, people had to have failed to have responded to a
medication. And studies show that with previous failure to respond to an
antidepressant, the rate of success for a second antidepressant is lower."
rTMS Treatment Needs Refinement
What does all this mean for people looking for relief from depression?
For starters, it means that people have a new treatment option, says Matthew
Rudorfer, MD, associate director for treatment research at the National
Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Rudorfer notes that in the study, people were more likely to benefit from
rTMS if they received the treatment before trying (and failing to get relief
from) more than one antidepressant medication.
"It is looking as if rTMS would be more effective earlier in the treatment
course rather than later," Rudorfer tells WebMD. "More work needs to be done to
find the right niche for this. We are very interested in personalizing
treatment for depression, and this fits that theme. For a small but significant
proportion of people who have not responded to medication -- one, probably, and
not a whole series of drugs -- this could be a viable alternative."