Watching a person receive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, feels like viewing something from a science fiction movie.
That was the scene Friday afternoon at TMS NW as the Vancouver business held an open house to mark its two-year anniversary. TMS NW technicians and guests who stopped by could experience TMS, a process that exposes the brain to brief magnetic fields at a similar amplitude used in magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, according to TMS NW’s website.
The fields are generated within a cushioned helmet that leaves patients looking a little like “X-Men” character Dr. Charles Francis Xavier, or Professor X, when he’s hooked up to his Cerebro helmet.
During TMS therapy, patients hear a tapping sound and feel a tapping sensation in the head. Piper Buersmeyer, who runs TMS NW along with Brendan Roe and Julia Swofford, said the therapy is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved noninvasive form of brain stimulation.
“People think it’s voodoo, but the data is very solid. It’s not fake. It’s very real,” said Buersmeyer, who also operates a private medication management practice, and is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
TMS was introduced in 1985 by medical physicist Anthony Baker at the University of Sheffield in England. The FDA approved the TMS machine in 2008.
According to the Harvard University Medical School’s health blog, the therapy affects your central nervous system activity by applying powerful magnetic fields to specific areas of the brain that are involved in depression.
The machine utilizes magnetic devices to spur electronic activity to stimulate areas of the brain that are underactive, or aren’t firing normally, in people who have depression. The therapy is considered much less invasive than electroconvulsive therapy, which induces seizures in patients under sedation.
About 50 to 60 percent of people with depression who have tried other medical interventions for depression with no helpful results find a meaningful response with TMS, according to the Harvard blog. The most common side effect is a headache during or after treatment and, rarely, seizures.
TMS NW generally gives patients 19 minutes of treatment five days a week for six weeks. Buersmeyer said the therapy is only covered by insurance when patients have failed other therapies. Even with insurance, the co-pay can be costly over six weeks of almost daily treatment.
Buersmeyer said the treatment isn’t a “golden ticket” for curing depression, but she believes patients see substantial improvements after undergoing therapy.
TMS NW treats patients for depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. She thinks the FDA could also clear the treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in the near future. There are still questions about the treatment’s long-term effectiveness, and some experts want to see more research done on the therapy, according to CBS news.
Buersmeyer said it’s a good alternative to traditional treatments that she thinks are about maintenance of a problem rather than fixing a problem.
“This is a really great place to come,” Buersmeyer said. “You come get support every day. You’re staying out of the hospital. It’s more affordable than a hospitalization, and it’s effective.”
Buersmeyer said she would like to see the therapy cleared for earlier intervention, instead of late in the treatment process after multiple depressive episodes have occurred. She thinks TMS therapy would be even more helpful and effective if that were the case.
“Right now it’s viewed as a last ditch effort and I think that needs to change,” Buersmeyer said.