This post was originally published on January 1, 2016.
One doesn’t normally associate magnets with anything other than a fridge. But while the majority of us have been using them to tack spinning class schedules onto our refrigerators (that we then ignore), scientists have been taking something that goes by the same name but is in fact quite different to treat both depression and addiction.
As someone who suffers from both addiction and depression but has been able to find treatment that works (at least most of the time), I’m horrified by the stories I hear about people who try every medication and program and facility and still can’t find a way to get their addiction and/or depression into any sort of remission. I know folks with crippling mental illness issues who suffer such serious side effects from medication that it’s easier for them to just let their faulty brain chemistry continue to attack them. I have a friend who was institutionalized repeatedly, had shock treatments that extracted a majority of his memories, and is still depressed. And I run across people all the time whose alcoholism is so severe that no number of steps, meetings, treatment centers or medication seems to help.
I say yo, bring on the magnets.
The Magnetics of Depression
Okay, so here’s how it works: depressed folks are depressed because their prefrontal cortex is too active—which, says The Washington Post, causes “excessive rumination and self absorption and impaired attention.” So while many people are happily sitting on a porch thinking about the pretty cloud they’re looking at or how the San Diego Spurs should really win or how good last night’s peas were, a depressed person is thinking about how that the cloud reminds them of how sad they were last winter or how silly it is to care about a sports team when we’re all just getting older every day and only going to die or how much they hate peas—and life.
Enter Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS—an electromagnetic coil that delivers small bursts of energy and can improve a person’s mood after one session. WTF? You all remember that scene in Requiem for a Dream when Ellen Burstyn is getting those (ineffective) shock treatments and afterwards her lady pals are crying in each other’s arms because they can’t handle what’s happened to their friend’s brain? (You don’t recall? Well, maybe your prefrontal cortex isn’t as active as mine because I’ve been ruminating about that scene since I saw it.) Anyway, point is this: if this non-invasive, drug-free treatment that’s only potential side effect is a headache proves to be as effective as research suggests it could, it will revolutionize how we treat mental illness.
And I say it’s about time for that.
If It Works for Depression, Why Not Addiction?
Even better news: last week there was a new development in terms of magnets and treatment. Apparently, a researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse was using a technique called optogenics, where he introduced “light-sensitive proteins into the brain” of rats, then activated those with light beams to see if this reduced drug cravings. While that all sounds very Star Wars-y to me (this from seemingly the one person on earth committed to not joining in the current SW hoopla), the end result is that it worked.
While this research is in its infancy and has only been tested on animals, it’s similar enough to TMS that some docs at the University of Padua worked with that NIDA researcher on a study to test the impact of TMS on coke cravings. Five days of sessions were followed by weekly sessions for three weeks. The end result? Out of the 13 people receiving the treatment (the study included 29 people total), 10 showed “significant improvement” in terms of craving. Sure, “significant improvement” isn’t exactly a scientific stat but with something as stubborn as cravings, any improvement is an improvement.
But Before You Go Dancing in the Streets to Celebrate the Coke Cure…
Of course, this news should be taken with the proverbial grain of whatever white substance you’d like. The study was small. The only people in it were Caucasian dudes so it’s unclear if the results would be similar for other population groups. And everyone included in it was seeking treatment, which is to say they were motivated to succeed (arguably the most important factor of all when it comes to addiction treatment).
All caveats aside, any news about non-drug treatment for addiction is good news in my book. As people grasp at Medication-Assisted Treatment for opiate abuse as the addiction panacea (neglecting to realize that replacing one drug with another is, in a sense, just perpetuating the problem), we can celebrate less invasive solutions. And TMS isn’t only being studied in relation to addiction; researchers are also trying it on OCD, smoking and binge eating, not to mention Parkinson’s, epilepsy and migraines.
While I believe these advances are significant, I’m not saying that you should go hoover some coke or binge TV Homeland while shoving Ben and Jerry’s down your gullet because a couple magnets are going to save you from the repercussions. People still need to do whatever they can to help themselves because ultimately that’s going to be far more effective than anything science can come up with.
One idea: use the info on that spinning schedule yellowing on the fridge?
Photo courtesy of StockSnap