What is TMS Therapy?

Major depressive disorder (MDD) can be one of the most vexing mental health disorders to understand and effectively treat. Each individual diagnosis of MDD will have its own unique profile, risk factors, and features, so attempting to treat depression using a one-size-fits-all conventional treatment model can result in frustration.

Traditional interventions for depression include psychotherapy and antidepressants, but only about half of those being treated using this model will actually attain clinical success. Those who do not achieve a successful outcome using antidepressant drug therapy, diagnosed as treatment-resistant, are left to explore alternative depression treatment options.

TMS Therapy

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) refers to a brain stimulation therapy that uses magnetic fields, a technology similar to the MRI. TMS is a safe, noninvasive alternative approach that does not rely on surgical procedures or anesthesia, and requires no recovery period.

During the 40-minute TMS therapy sessions, the fully alert individual will be seated comfortably in an office setting. A coil will be positioned over the scalp according to the primary diagnosis (this positioning differs based on whether it is depression or anxiety). The magnetic fields induce electrical currents that are channeled through the coil and penetrate the scalp and targeted brain region. These currents will then stimulate, or accelerate, the sluggish brain cells (neurons) often seen in brain imaging studies of depressed patients.

TMS therapy is typically prescribed for 4-6 weeks, five times per week, for the best recovery outcome. TMS is well tolerated, with few adverse effects reported. Those side effects that have been reported include scalp irritation where the magnetic pulses are administered, and mild to moderate headache. These transient effects, however, tend to dissipate spontaneously as the treatment sessions proceed.

How Does TMS Help Depression Symptoms?

Although the exact cause of depression is still not fully understood, one common feature extensively examined is that of brain chemistry and its effect on mood. Some depressed individuals experience an imbalance or interruptions in the neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Serotonin, in particular, is involved in regulating such functions as sleep, eating, aggression, sexual behavior, and mood. When there is a decrease in serotonin these functions are impacted, resulting in depression.

TMS therapy helps to regulate the messaging between the neurotransmitters and other parts of the nervous system. By stimulating the underactive neurons, TMS can eventually lead to a recalibration of these important brain chemicals. As the therapy progresses and brain chemistry is reset, the individual may then experience improvements in energy level, concentration, sleep quality, and overall mood.

Does it Help Comorbid Disorders?

Originally the FDA cleared TMS in 2008 for treating treatment-resistant major depressive disorder. Over the past decade of clinical application, however, TMS has also been found to have a positive therapeutic effect on co-occurring anxiety disorders, particularly generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Europe, TMS therapy is already cleared for treating additional conditions, both psychological and physical, including substance use disorder, smoking cessation, autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, pain management, and multiple sclerosis.