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Using Electromagnetism to Treat Brain Disorders

Aug 30, 2008
Scientists have created a fairly recent invention called deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a relatively new treatment modality for brain disorders that was first introduced in 1985. Over the course of the past 10 years, it has been shown to improve a myriad number of brain disorders including schizophrenia, migraines and major depression.

The main idea behind this technology is that a TMS device generates an electromagnetic pulse that goes through a person's skull and this pulse then creates an electric current in a targeted area of that person's brain. When scientists change the frequency of the electromagnetic pulse, they can either increase or decrease activity selectively in any brain area. Low frequency pulses inhibit brain activity, while high frequency pulses excite brain activity. The problem, though, with existing TMS is that it can penetrate only about 1-2 cm into the brain. So this means that it is basically limited to activating or deactivating brain regions that are near to the subject's skull.

Recently, scientists have invented a new deep transcranial magnetic stimulation device that is able to reach further into the brain. This device is able to inhibit or excite more areas that were previously out of reach with the older TMS devices. Deep TMS has the ability to touch practically any brain area. Usually disorders of the mind have brain areas that are either overactive or underactive in comparison to a normal brain.

This new technology can normalize abnormal brain activity by non-invasive stimulation. The major benefit to deep TMS is that it can be performed on a person when they are wide awake and completely conscious. So this device is very easy to use and it has few side effects. This is in comparison to drugs which often have many nasty side effects that go along with taking them.

Scientists are testing the deep TMS device on people who are overweight or obese to help them lose weight. They are non-invasively stimulating the hypothalamus which is a structure located deep within the brain. The hypothalamus secretes hormones and is involved in metabolic processes. So by stimulating this area researchers may enable a person to lose weight. The overweight person wouldn't even have to do any dieting or exercising, all they would have to do is undergo several 30 minute treatment sessions.

Researchers are using the deep tms device to reduce the auditory hallucinations that are found in schizophrenic patients. Around 50 to 70 percent of schizophrenic patients can hear voices that do not exist in real life. These imaginary voices can be extremely distressing as they can make mean comments to the individual. Using brain imaging, scientists have found that an area of the brain called the left temporoparietal cortex is overactive when patients are experiencing these auditory hallucinations. So by using deep TMS, scientists may be able to decrease activity in these overactive brain areas and this could reduce the auditory hallucinations that schizophrenics experience.

Researchers are also using this device to treat many of the symptoms that are associated with depression. They are targeting directly brain regions that are involved in a person's ability to experience reward and pleasure. Electrical stimulation of a brain area called the nucleus accumbens has been shown to be rewarding. However up until recently, patients had to undergo risky brain surgery to get a brain implant to stimulate this area. Now, though, scientists will be able to non-invasively stimulate the nucleus accumbens without the need for brain surgery. Depressed patients usually experience anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure) along with dysphoric mood. The anhedonia is due to dysfunction of the reward circuits of the brain. So by using deep TMS, researchers can reduce chronic apathy and anhedonia in depressd patients by stimulating these reward related regions.

The researchers have already performed several clinical studies on over 100 depressed patients. They have found deep tms can improve or relieve anhedonia in more than 50% of the patients. So this treatment may allow a depressed patients to enjoy their life more than they would otherwise. In a study done on bipolar depressed patients, the researchers discovered that about 80% of the patients responded to the treatment, while 50% of them experienced a significant improvement in their depression symptoms. The scientists have even tested the deep TMS on normal healthy volunteers without a mood problem. The researchers have claimed that it improved the mood of these normal people. So this treatment may even enable a seemingly normal healthy person to get more enjoyment from their life.

This new deep TMS technology shows enormous potential for several different brain disorders. It could potentially allow a person to lose weight, experience more pleasure in life and reduce hallucinations (in schizophrenics). It may also find use for practically any brain disorder associated with altered brain functioning. Deep tms certainly has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of brain disorders in the future.
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