Treatment for depression reduces symptoms in 90% of patients

Hyperaxion Apr 7, 2020

Stanford University researchers have perfected magnetic brain stimulation and have even observed improvements in the cognitive skills of volunteers.

Researchers at Stanford University in the United States developed a new form of magnetic brain stimulation that quickly relieved symptoms of severe depression in 90% of participants in a small study. The tests were carried out on 21 volunteers and the results were published on Monday (06), in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Treatment for depression reduces symptoms in 90% of patients
Stanford University researchers have perfected magnetic brain stimulation. (Credit: Unsplash).

The treatment was called Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy (SAINT) and is a form of transcranial magnetic stimulation, a method approved by US authorities. The treatment consists of generating electrical currents in the brain region related to depression. For this, a magnetic coil is placed on the patient’s scalp.

Other versions of the method are already used by American professionals: they consist of daily treatment sessions for 6 weeks. However, only half of the patients experience any improvement and only a third experience remission of the disease.

“There’s never been a therapy for treatment-resistant depression that’s broken 55% remission rates in open-label testing,” said Nolan Williams, one of the researchers, in a statement. “Electroconvulsive therapy is considered the gold standard, but it has an average remission rate of only 48% in severe depression.”

New approach

Stanford researchers hypothesized that some changes in transcranial magnetic stimulation could improve its effectiveness. Studies have suggested that a stronger dose, 1,800 pulses per session, instead of the 600 normally applied, would be more effective.

By studying the parts of the brain that were stimulated, the study also focused on other possible areas of nerve tissue that could benefit from treatment. According to the scientists, today, the stimulus is directed to the location of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for regulating “executive functions” such as selecting appropriate memories and inhibiting inappropriate responses.

Researcher Nolan Williams and volunteer Deirdre Lehman demonstrate how the patient is positioned during treatment.
Researcher Nolan Williams and volunteer Deirdre Lehman demonstrate how the patient is positioned during treatment. (Credit: Steve Fisch/Universidade de Stanford).

For SAINT, the researchers used MRI images to analyze patients’ brain activity – and found a specific subregion within the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that could benefit from the treatment. According to them, the sub-region is linked to the subgenual cingulate, a part of the brain that is hyperactive in people who suffer from depression.

As research co-author Keith Sudheimer explained, in depressed people, the connection between these two regions is weak and the subgenual cingulate becomes hyperactive. Therefore, the team speculated that stimulating the sub-region of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex would reduce activity in the subgenual cingulate. And it worked!

Results

To carry out the study, the specialists divided the volunteers into two groups: one that would receive the treatment and the other that would undergo a kind of “placebo experiment”, which would allow researchers to compare how effective the method was.

Patients who actually underwent therapy, went through 10 sessions of 10-minute treatments per day, with 50-minute intervals between them. As explained in the study, an average of three days of therapy was sufficient for the participants to experience a reduction in depressive symptoms, and one month after the therapy, 60% of the participants were still in remission.

In addition, the team found that the volunteers’ cognitive skills improved after treatment: both the ability to switch between mental tasks and problem-solving was improved. As experts pointed out, this is a common result of successful therapies in people who are no longer depressed.

“I used to cry over the slightest thing,” said Deirdre Lehman, one of the volunteers, in a statement to the press. “But when bad things happen now, I’m just resilient and stable. I’m in a much more peaceful state of mind, able to enjoy the positive things in life with the energy to get things done.”

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