What is Magnetic Seizure Therapy?

What is Magnetic Seizure Therapy

Posted May 2020 by John Sherk, B.S.W., B.S. Bible; MDiv.; 4 updates since. Reading time: 5 min. Reading level: Grade 9+. Questions on magnetic seizure therapy? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

We’re all familiar with the stigma surrounding electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly known as “electroshock therapy.” We’ve heard about it in movies, TV shows, and maybe even cartoons. Without knowing too much of its background, many people think of it simply as an outdated torture device used on people with mental health issues. Even though that’s not true, the stigma forces us to discover alternatives. Magnetic seizure therapy (MST) is one such alternative. Magnetic seizure therapy uses focused transcranial magnetic stimulation to help treat people suffering from treatment-resistant depression, schizophrenia, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

Magnetic seizure therapy uses focused transcranial magnetic stimulation in treatment. Using a magnetic coil, rapidly alternating magnetic field pulses get delivered to a very small, specific part of the brain. This induces a small seizure in that part of the brain so that increased blood flow results in that part of the brain. In turn, this can make medication more effective and increase overall activity in areas of the brain neurologically impacted by depression, schizophrenia, or OCD. This often shapes success rate.

However, it’s important to clarify something at this point: this does not mean that the patient receiving MST begins to convulse in a full-body seizure. Rather, only the part of the brain targeted with transcranial magnetic stimulation gets effected. The point of MST is to avoid the adverse side effects commonly caused by ECT.

Magnetic Seizure Therapy Success Rate

No treatment is worth doing if it cannot prove successful. Although magnetic seizure therapy was first introduced in 1998, it has demonstrated a high success rate in some studies. Here’s a summary of a handful of relevant research:

  • According to an article by Psychiatry Advisor, a 2017 study in Korea with 106 participants found that the success rate of transcranial magnetic stimulation on patients experiencing auditory hallucinations proved statistically significant.
  • Additionally, a separate study found that TMS can improve motor learning in people with nonclinical psychosis.
  • Regarding treatment for schizophrenia, a pilot study found that “MST demonstrated evidence for feasibility in patients with TRS, with promise for clinical efficacy and negligible cognitive side effects.”
  • Lastly, an aggregate report of 8 separate studies investigating its effect on people suffering from bi-polar disorder “reported significant antidepressant effects, with remission rates ranging from 30% to 40%. No significant cognitive side effects related to MST were found, with a better cognitive profile when compared to ECT.”

Since this treatment method is so new, further studies need to be conducted to consistently demonstrate a success rate in treatment. More studies need to demonstrate magnetic seizure therapy’s long-term effectiveness. Most studies note fewer side effects than ECT.

Length of Treatment

Before we can look at how long the effects work, it’s important to know more about what to expect in treatment. As of now, few places openly offer MST as a treatment because it’s so new. To receive this treatment, a person needs to volunteer for a research study. If you fit the criteria for the study, you can receive the treatment. Common to most studies, a few factors disqualify a person from participating in a study:

  • Pregnancy
  • Metallic implants in the head
  • Recent active substance abuse
  • Comorbidity with dementia, delirium, or other cognitive disorders

However, for those who do qualify to participate in a study, they can expect between 15 to 24 treatment sessions. During such a session, an anesthesiologist will assess if someone has the medical stability to receive anesthesia. Recent developments in MST make “going under” unnecessary. After this, the patient either sits or lies down, a doctor attaches the magnetic coil to their head like a helmet and then activates the treatment. Each session only takes about five minutes.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and MST Side Effects

What can someone expect in terms of side effects? Recipients of ECT often experience forgetfulness since the treatment works through the whole brain as opposed to a focused area like with MST. A magnetic field impacts the brain differently than an electric field does. The goal in research for MST is to see if it can be as effective or more effective than ECT without the side effects. If that can be proven, we can expect MST to replace ECT.

Although most studies have not discovered consistent adverse side effects, some side effects noted include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle aches and fatigue

Nevertheless, these side effects can be attributed instead to either the anesthesia or if the patient hadn’t eaten anything before treatment.

How Long Do the Effects Work?

How long do the effects work? Researchers for MST need to prove, not only the success rate but the lasting impact of treatment. If the effects last longer than the effects of ECT, then all the better. Unfortunately, since more research needs to be done, “how long do the effects work?” remains an open question. Some studies “showed quality-of-life improvements and negligible cognitive effects,” but too few longitudinal studies have been conducted.

Despite all of this, magnetic seizure therapy remains an FDA-approved, noninvasive treatment option for people suffering from treatment-resistant depression, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you’d like more information on MST, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or its success rate, check out the links provided in this post. You can also read more here.