Stanford study finds possible cure for severe depression with 80% effectiveness

The study found that the treatment caused remission in 79% of trial participants with severe depression. (Credit: Steve Fisch/Stanford Medicine)

Researchers at Stanford have found a new type of treatment using magnetic brain stimulation that provided rapid relief in almost 80% of participants with severe depression.

The study was conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine using high doses of magnetic brain stimulation, according to an article from Stanford.

The treatment, known as Stanford accelerated intelligent neuromodulation therapy (SAINT) is an intensive, individualised form of magnetic brain stimulation.

The study found that the treatment caused remission in 79% of trial participants with severe depression. The remission typically occurred within days and lasted months with the only side effects being ‘temporary fatigue and headaches’.

‘It works well, it works quickly and it’s noninvasive,’ said Nolan Williams, the senior author of the study.

The potentially game-changing study involved 29 people with treatment-resistant depression where about half of them received SAINT, and the rest underwent a placebo procedure that mimicked the real treatment. 

After five days of treatment, 78.6% of the participants in the treatment group were no longer depressed, according to several standard methods of evaluation. 

Experimental depression treatment SAINT is nearly 80% effective in controlled study (Credits: Steve Fisch)

‘It’s quite a dramatic effect, and it’s quite sustained,’ said Alan Schatzberg, who co-authored the study.

Among the successful patients was 60-year-old Tommy Van Brocklin, who had suffered from depression since he was 15. 

‘In 1975, they didn’t have the medication and understanding they do now,’ he said. ‘I was told I wasn’t trying hard enough,’

‘I’ve functioned all these years, but it’s been very difficult at times,’ said the civil engineer. 

Van Brocklin had started with talk therapy which helped ‘for about half a day after an appointment’ and moved on to Paxil when selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors became available in the 1990s.

Then Paxil which ‘worked like a miracle drug’ for him started to lose its effect after 10 or 15 years and ‘stopped working entirely’ after 25 years. He found other medications to be useless with one even making him suicidal. 

In September, Van Brocklin underwent the SAINT treatment and found a breakthrough improvement in less than a week. 

‘I felt so much better, and it’s stuck with me,’ he said.

The magnetic stimulation treatment currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires six weeks of daily sessions. 

Within four weeks after the treatment, 12 of the 14 participants who had received the SAINT treatment improved. (Credits: Steve Fisch)

The catch is that only about half of patients who undergo the treatment improve, and only about a third experience remission from depression.

SAINT advances that treatment by targeting the magnetic pulses according to each patient’s brain using an MRI to locate the best location to target the stimulation. The pulses are applied in a region of the brain that had the strongest relationship with people experiencing depression.

The trial participants ranged in age from 22 to 80, suffering from depression for nine years on average. The participants had tried medications that either had no effect or stopped working. During the trial, participants who were on medication maintained their regular dosage.

Within four weeks after the treatment, 12 of the 14 participants who had received the SAINT treatment improved and 11 of them met the FDA criteria for remission. In contrast, only two of the 15 participants who had received the placebo met the criteria for remission.

Researchers hope that SAINT can be used to quickly treat patients who are at breaking point and at risk for suicide as study participants typically felt better within days of starting treatment. Patients who start taking medication for depression typically don’t experience any reduction of symptoms for a month.

‘We want to get this into emergency departments and psychiatric wards where we can treat people who are in a psychiatric emergency,’ said Williams. ‘The period right after hospitalization is when there’s the highest risk of suicide,’

Van Brocklin said that since the treatment he’s had a really strong desire to get his life together.

‘I don’t procrastinate anymore,’ he said. ‘I’m sleeping better. I completely quit alcohol. I’m walking my dog and playing the guitar again, for nothing more than the sheer joy of it,’

The study was published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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