Israeli scientists probe deeper to lift depression

HOD HASHARON, Israel Thu Dec 7, 2006 8:38am EST

1 of 2. A hospital worker sits under a wired helmet while demonstrating an experimental treatment for clinical depression at Shalvata Mental Health Care Centre in the central Israeli town of Hod Hasharon December 4, 2006. Scientists in Israel are reaching deeper into the minds of the clinically depressed to try to lift their spirits. Using a locally developed upgrade to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy, scientists can now send electronic currents induced by alternating magnetic fields up to 8 cm (3 inches) into the brain to stimulate parts that had been out of reach.

Credit: Reuters/Gil Cohen Magen

HOD HASHARON, Israel (Reuters) - Scientists in Israel are reaching deeper into the minds of the clinically depressed to try to lift their spirits.

Using a locally developed upgrade to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy, they can now send electronic currents induced by alternating magnetic fields up to 8 cm (3 inches) into the brain to stimulate parts that had been out of reach.

The improved technology was developed in 2002 by Israeli scientists, led by Abraham Zangen at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and described that same year in an article published in the Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology.

In the article, Zangen and research colleagues said they expected to achieve "deep brain stimulation" without the need to increase the intensity of the current.

Israeli doctors are now conducting a clinical trial at Shalvata Mental Health Care Center in the central Israeli town of Hod Hasharon to test the device on patients for the first time.

They hope their findings will persuade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the use of TMS to treat depression. The long-term effects of the method, which was developed in 1985 and has been used and tested worldwide, remain unknown.

"It's like rehabilitation for the damaged brain tissue," said Eran Harel, a psychiatrist heading the experimental treatments, which began in May. Some 30 volunteers, most of whom suffer from major depression, are taking part.

Psychiatrist Hilik Levkovitz, director of the Shalvata center, said preliminary results at the facility have been encouraging.

"Many patients improved with the treatment, in sleep function, appetite, mood," he said.

"Cognitive impairments went away and a patient felt well enough to return to work. Some patients reported headaches, dizziness. But for most it is very convenient."

Scientists participating in the study believe the improved TMS therapy could also help stroke victims or control various addictions more efficiently than conventional drug and surgical treatments, and with fewer side effects.

"It isn't painful. There's a bit of a strange feeling at first but (patients) get used to it very quickly," Harel said.

Previously, electronic pulses generated by TMS could penetrate only 1.5 cm (0.6 inch) into the brain, scientists taking part in the testing said.

WIRED HELMET

During the experimental TMS treatments, patients sit in a chair and wear a helmet made of wires, strapped under the chin.

A doctor places a coil near the head and administers a two-second electrical pulse, which sounds like a machine gun, periodically for 15 minutes.

Volunteers take part in 20 such sessions for one month. During that time, they are taken off prior medication used to treat their psychiatric illnesses.

Directors at the Shalvata center did not make patients available to be interviewed by Reuters.

But in a recent interview with Israel's Haaretz newspaper, Richard Hopkins, a 35-year-old Briton who participated in the clinical trial after reading about the TMS upgrade on the Internet, said his depression improved after the treatment.

"The change started after the first week," he said. "I was more relaxed and a bit happier. I was waiting for the next treatment. Today I feel more positive, with self-confidence and with energies," Hopkins said.

The patients in the clinical trial, aged 18 to 65, were chosen because they had not responded well to anti-depressants and other drugs.

However, Harel said that at the end of their month-long therapy, many sank back into their previous states of depression and were prescribed medication.

He said this indicated that TMS patients may require continuous treatment if the upgraded therapy is approved for wider use.

The researchers had tested the TMS therapy on healthy volunteers before the current treatments and plan to later conduct a larger clinical trial involving hundreds suffering from depression and publish the findings in a medical journal.