Treatments that stimulate parts of the brain monitoring mood, motivation, and dopamine levels could be a quick relief for depression patients, but the risks might outweigh the benefits.

One particular type of treatment has shown promising results that have an immediate effect on patients suffering from lack of motivation, depression, or bipolar disorder. The treatment, known as low-field magnetic stimulation (LFMS), triggers immediate and “substantial” mood boosts, according to researchers from McLean Hospital, who published their study in Biological Psychiatry.

Other forms of treating depression may involve deep brain stimulation (DBS) — which has been used to treat both Parkinson’s disease and depression. DBS involves placing small electrodes in the part of the brain that monitors mood, dopamine, serotonin, and motivation through brain surgery, and then implanting a stimulator in the chest to activate these electrodes. Thus, DBS can disrupt abnormal patterns in the activity of your brain, treating diseases like Parkinson’s, Meige Syndrome, and dystonia. Since the treatment isn’t very common, and research on its efficacy has shown varying results, physicians still just see it as an alternative form of treatment for depression, while medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy are still considered the top treatments.

LFMS, meanwhile, is "unlike any current treatment,”said Michael Rohan, a physicist at McLean Hospital’s Brain Imaging Center and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, in a press release. “It uses magnetic fields that are a fraction of the strength but at a higher frequency than the electromagnetic fields used in TMS [transcranial magnetic stimulation] and ECT [electroconvulsive therapy].” In other words, LFMS’s impact can be seen far more quickly than deep brain stimulation or regular antidepressant medication, which often take six weeks to take effect. And it doesn't involve the riskiness of brain surgery, but rather involves externally-applied electromagnetic stimulation.

Rohan has been studying LFMS for over a decade, and believed back then that it could potentially be a breakthrough in depression treatment. In his most recent study, his team studied 63 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 65, who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. Thirty-four of the participants received LFMS, while 29 went through the electrode process without actually receiving brain stimulation as the placebo group. The participants then rated their mood before and after the process. The researchers found that the group who had undergone brain stimulation with LFMS had a marked improvement in their mood, just after a 20 minute treatment. “We observed immediate improvement in mood following relatively brief exposure to LFMS,” Rohan said.

“Although larger research studies are needed, we think LFMS could be a powerful tool as a rapidly acting treatment for depression, either alone or in combination with medication,” he continued.

What Are The Risks Of Deep Brain Stimulation?

The notion behind DBS is that depression patients can be treated without having to worry about taking pills. But some of the side effects and potential risks — like infection or skin irritation caused by the implanted stimulator in the chest; numbness or other strange sensations from the device being turned on; bleeding in the brain during surgery; or even seizures — could well outweigh the benefits. Of course, any procedure that involves brain surgery poses risks, and DBS is no different.

In addition, despite the fact that it aims to treat symptoms quickly, it still takes up to six months post-surgery in order for patients to receive “optimal results,” according to UCLA Neurosurgery. Perhaps the procedure is best for a very specific niche of patients, like people suffering from Parkinson’s; over 70 percent of these patients see a vast improvement in their motor function after DBS.

Perhaps this is why LFMS seems so promising; it is a quick form of treatment that might not have all the same side effects as DBS. However, researchers still aren't sure what long-term risks LFMS might pose. Whether LFMS proves to be a useful form of depression treatment that overrides medication and therapy is yet to be seen.

Source: Rohan M, Yamamoto R, Cohen B, et al. Rapid Mood-Elevating Effects of Low Field Magnetic Stimulation in Depression. Biological Psychiatry. 2014.