The University of Pennsylvania Health System

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Olivia Fermano
(215) 662-2560

PennHealth Line


June 8, 1998


Study Explores Alternative To Electric Shock Therapy

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Offers Promising Alternative to Electroconvulsive Therapy

A study under way at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center compares the effectiveness of transcranial magnetic stimulation to electroconvulsive therapy -- or electric "shock" therapy -- in treating severe depression. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, delivers a mild, magnetic pulse which jump starts the part of the brain that is functioning poorly, therefore causing severe depression.

Severe, long-term depression affects 35 million Americans, many of whom do not respond to treatment, such as medication and psychotherapy. With TMS, patients are given a much less physiologically challenging option than electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

"Being only one of a few sites nationwide approved to acquire the equipment and conduct this study, we've discovered that TMS appears to be an incredibly uncomplicated treatment," says Marty Szuba, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry who directs the ECT Program and the Laboratory for Transcranial Stimulation at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Patients are treated in an outpatient exam room while sitting in a comfortable recliner. The patient is awake and alert and no medication is given at all.

"Before I begin, I take what's called a 'figure-of-eight' magnetic coil and demonstrate on my own forearm just how mild the magnetic pulse is," says Szuba. "Patients appreciate that they can see how mild and painless this treatment is. The pulse causes my hand to only twitch a bit, which is much more of a reaction than will occur on the scalp."

To locate the right spot of the brain to be stimulated by the magnetic coil, the physician must find the part of the brain where depression occurs, called the dorsal lateral pre-frontal cortex. This area is slightly above the temple and behind the forehead.

"So far, patients have responded well to five-to-ten TMS treatments over a one-to-two week period," explains Szuba. "Afterwards, there is no fatigue and no memory loss, which usually occurs with ECT. If anything, we've seen an increase in memory for some patients. The only complaint we've had is of a mild headache which can easily be treated with acetophetamen or ibuprofen."

The differences between TMS and ECT are apparent immediately. "ECT is still the most effective treatment for severe depression that is unresponsive to anything else," says Szuba. "ECT is now an extremely safe treatment, as opposed to as recently as 20-30 years ago. However, it requires a tremendous amount of preparation to make it that way."

Traditional ECT must be conducted in a specialty-care unit setting with a psychiatrist, anesthesiologist and nursing staff. Since ECT induces a seizure which causes convulsions, the patient is put under general anesthesia, and given a short-term paralyzing drug to prevent muscle strains and broken bones. Once the treatments are completed, the patient has to recover from general anesthesia. Sedation, vomiting and memory loss are common aftereffects.

"Many patients do not want to be on anti-depressants indefinitely, and TMS looks promising as an effective therapeutic alternative for those individuals," notes Szuba. "While its permanent niche remains to be defined, TMS definitely will have a place in the treatment of severe depression. With this study, we are not looking to completely replace ECT, but to find another treatment option. For now, TMS could be the answer for patients with a long course of depression who simply cannot tolerate anything else."

The University of Pennsylvania Medical Center's sponsored research and training ranks third in the United States based on grant support from the National Institutes of Health, the primary funder of biomedical research and training in the nation -- $175 million in federal fiscal year 1997. In addition, for the third consecutive year, the institution posted the highest annual growth in these areas -- 17.6 percent -- of the top ten U.S. academic medical centers. News releases from the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center are available to reporters by direct e-mail, fax, or U.S. mail, upon request. They are also posted electronically to the medical center's home page (, to EurekAlert! (, an Internet resource sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and to the electronic news services SciNews-MedNews and Quadnet.

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