The government has approved the first noninvasive brain stimulator to treat depression - a device that beams magnetic pulses through the skull.
If it sounds like science-fiction, well, those woodpecker-like pulses trigger small electrical charges that spark brain cells to fire. Yet it doesn't cause the risks of surgically implanted electrodes or the treatment of last resort, shock therapy.
Called transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS, this gentler approach isn't for everyone. The Food and Drug Administration approved Neuronetics Inc.'s NeuroStar therapy specifically for patients who had no relief from their first antidepressant, offering them a different option than trying pill after pill.
"We're opening up a whole new area of medicine," says Dr. Mark George of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, who helped pioneer use of TMS in depression. "There's a whole field now that's moving forward of noninvasive electrical stimulation of the brain."
While there's a big need for innovative approaches - at least one in five depression patients is treatment-resistant - the question is just how much benefit TMS offers.
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