As far as psychoactive medications have come in the last twenty years, we suspect there’s even more greatness ahead for non-medical psychiatric interventions, specifically, magnetism and our old friend, electricity. Boing Boing points us to a nice overview:
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Vagus nerve stimulation isn’t the only technology being touted for treatment of the severely depressed. Another technique, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, uses powerful magnets to generate current in well-defined portions of the brain. Many research groups around the world have experimented with the technology. At last count the results of more than 60 depression trials performed in Australia, Israel, Taiwan, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere had been published. But clinical use is just beginning…
Researchers are exploring three other, more experimental technologies. One uses direct current to produce a change in the brain similar to that of magnetic stimulation. Another uses transcranial magnetic stimulators to spark seizures just as electroconvulsive therapy does but, it is hoped, without the amnesia that can accompany it. The third experimental technology borrows a device used to control the tremors of Parkinson’s disease. Surgeons have begun implanting electrodes in patients’ brains to switch off malfunctioning brain circuits involved in depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder…
Psychiatrists are beginning to look at an even simpler technology than transcranial magnetic stimulation to fight depression [transcranial DC stimulation]. “It’s like hooking the patient up to a car battery,” jokes Sachdev. “But with safety features,” his colleague Colleen Loo, a senior research fellow, hastily adds. Crude or not, it’s a pretty accurate description of an experimental technique called. Basically, it subjects the front half of the brain to a minutes-long 1-mA direct current once a day for several weeks… They both seek to make neurons in the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of the brain, more excitable, that is, more likely to propagate a signal from neuron to neuron. In tDCS’s case a small current, delivered via electrodes on the temples, biases brain cells, making them more likely to emit a spike of voltage… The effect, studies have shown, lasts long after the current is turned off.
We are still excited about transcranial magnetic stimulation for its anecdotal reports of creating brief, autistic-like states where patients suddenly gain the ability to draw, compose, or understand complex math.