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Kevlar for the Mind: Magnets, pulses among alternative PTSD treatments

Jul. 9, 2014 - 01:16PM   |  
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Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are the most common psychiatric problems faced by service members and veterans. Although their effectiveness varies from person to person, medication and psychotherapy can help the majority of people. For those who don’t respond to either, technology may be the answer.

Merging electronics and medical science, doctors are combating cases of depression and PTSD that don’t respond to traditional treatments. The most notable are transcranial magnetic stimulation and deep brain stimulation.

Seemingly straight out of a science fiction novel, transcranial magnetic stimulation uses magnets to influence cells in the brain that are responsible for psychiatric symptoms. Placed against a patient’s head, an electromagnetic coil emits brief magnetic pulses that penetrate the skull and stimulate cells in specific areas of the brain. The results of TMS are mixed. But anecdotal reports show doctors who use it say they believe it to be very effective, especially with patients who have not responded to traditional treatments or can’t tolerate the side effects of medications. On rare occasions, seizures may occur from TMS. Headache, scalp discomfort and twitching of facial muscles are the most common side effects.

Deep brain stimulation is a bit more invasive than TMS — it’s actually a surgical intervention. A small medical device is implanted in the chest that delivers electrical impulses via electrodes in the brain. This technique has been used for a variety of neurological disorders for the past two decades with the most significant results seen with patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Only recently has DBS been studied for depression and PTSD. In fact, just this year the military announced plans to study the use of DBS in troops suffering from PTSD and other psychological problems. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has earmarked tens of millions of dollars and is collaborating with a variety of civilian and government researchers to bridge theory with practice in this area.

As might be expected, DBS is not without significant controversy and potential side effects. This neurosurgical procedure requires drilling small holes in the skull to insert the electrodes and another procedure in which the “generator” is implanted under the skin of the chest. As with any surgery, complications such as bleeding and infection can occur.

It’s unlikely that TMS and DBS will find their way into your doctor’s office any time soon. But it’s good news that researchers are thinking outside of the box when it comes to improving the lives of service members and veterans suffering from psychiatric conditions.

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq. Email kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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