An estimated 3.4 percent of Americans experience major depression severe enough to interfere with normal life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Effective, proven treatment options are limited for patients who don’t respond to the standard treatments of medication and psychotherapy. Researchers remain focused on exploring experimental approaches to help people with treatment-resistant depression. Magnetic seizure therapy (MST) is an experimental treatment that may help patients with severe, treatment-resistant depression. Its aim is to use the newly available technology of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to achieve the effectiveness of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) without its side effects.

How Magnetic Seizure Therapy Works

In order to understand magnetic seizure therapy, it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both ECT and TMS. In ECT, doctors use high levels of targeted electrical energy to trigger therapeutic seizures. The procedure has a decades-long track record of effectiveness, but the seizures often come with side effects such as disorientation and memory loss. In TMS, large amounts of electrical energy are pulsed into a coil to produce magnetic fields that pass through the skull. This directly stimulates the portion of the brain that regulates mood.

In magnetic seizure therapy, the TMS device is used at much higher settings with the goal of generating a seizure. With MST, it is believed that the physician can avoid the brain’s memory centers while still triggering a seizure.

Who It’s For

At this point, magnetic seizure therapy is strictly experimental. Only patients enrolled in a clinical trial can receive it. If MST becomes available in the future, patients will need to be good candidates for repeated anesthesia because the procedure requires sedation.

Possible Side Effects or Complications

No large-scale clinical trials have established the safety or even the effectiveness of magnetic seizure therapy in treating depression. As of now, it is not possible to fully understand the potential side effects or complications of this experimental treatment. Several small-scale studies have found that the seizures generated by MST create less memory loss and allow for faster recovery than those associated with ECT, but further study is needed.

What the Expert Says

Philip G. Janicak, M.D., medical director of the Psychiatric Clinical Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, believes that magnetic seizure therapy shows early potential. “The hope is to be able to deliver a kinder, gentler electroconvulsive therapy by triggering a therapeutic seizure while avoiding the parts of the brain that control memory,” Janicak says. “But as far as I know, no country has approved magnetic seizure therapy. I don’t think magnetic seizure therapy is even ready for large studies, let alone FDA approval or clinical practice.”

But interest in magnetic seizure therapy remains high in the psychiatric community. Now that the necessary device has become commercially available, it may be only a question of time before it is in widespread use. In the future, MST may present a viable option for people with treatment-resistant major depression, but much scientific research needs to be done first.