A Brief History of TMS

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy isn’t as new as it seems. It was FDA approved for Major Depressive Disorder in 2008.  After a multitude of research trials, the use of TMS as a therapy proceeded carefully with a sharp eye on patient safety and side effects.  Though TMS is still a relatively new option in the fight against depression (available for 14 years), the principles underlying TMS were actually discovered over 100 years ago.

Let’s look at a little history:

In the late 1700’s, the Italian physician, biologist, physicist, and philosopher Luigi Galvani along with his wife, Lucia, discovered that a dead frog’s legs twitched when touched with an electrical spark.  Strangely enough, this led to a new understanding of electric potential in biological organisms, known as bioelectricity. He found that muscles contract with bioelectricity and nerves send messages with bioelectricity.

About 100 years later, In 1881, Michael Faraday is credited with discovering that a pulse of electric current passing through a wire coil creates a magnetic field around it. This led to the further discovery that when the rate at which the electric current passes through a conductor changes, a second electric current is created in nearby conductors.

Much later we learned that the neurons in our brain are bioelectric conductors and our brains naturally function with electricity being passed from one cell to another.

In the 1980’s, a group of scientists led by Dr. Anthony Barker put these ideas together and made the first device that pulsed electricity through metal coils (Faraday coils) outside the body. This creates a magnetic field in order to cause electrical currents to run through conductors inside a human body. Dr. Barker and his team held the Faraday coil above the scalp and saw movement in the right hand. This was the first incident of electromagnetic stimulation of the brain stimulating a tissue response.

This first TMS device sent a single pulse of electricity into the brain and was used as a diagnostic tool for patients believed to have multiple sclerosis. Soon it was found that sending pulses in rapid succession, instead of simply individual pulses of electricity, through the coils made it possible to do more than diagnose. Rapidly repeated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation appeared to “generate lasting cortical effects” that continued after the electrical stimulation stopped, according to a 1994 paper by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone et al. Although what exactly this meant wasn’t clear at the time, it opened up whole new possibilities for TMS.

The way doctors and scientists regarded TMS quickly changed.  Instead of pursuing TMS technology simply as a diagnostic or investigative tool, suddenly the potential for a new, powerful mental health treatment existed.  And an explosion of excitement and research began.

More than 90 clinical trials and multiple meta analyses were completed and published in the subsequent 14 years.  Researchers proceeded cautiously though.  Only two years into the process, the first guidelines for the safe and ethical use of TMS were published.  In 1998, these guidelines were made official.  As numerous proof-of-principle trials were successful, the potential benefits were being confirmed.  Doctors were trying TMS as a treatment for patients with a variety of mental illnesses for whom no other treatment had been successful.  Although not all experiments with TMS have been successful, the rate of success was and is high, especially for those with depression.

Eventually, the FDA first approved TMS as a therapy for Major Depressive Disorder in 2008. Since then, TMS technology has been refined and improved and received FDA approval as an adjunct treatment for OCD.

TMS continues to be studied and used as a diagnostic tool as well as a therapy. It is being studied as a treatment for autism, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, PTSD, migraines and more.  Studies are even being done to see if TMS can help smokers stop smoking.  To date, it has been most successful in treating depression in individuals. 

Today, most insurance carriers, including Medicare, cover TMS treatments for Major Depressive Disorder, although getting to this point wasn’t easy. TMS has proven to be an effective treatment for too many people to be ignored.

TMS continues to steadily gain a good reputation for being what it claims to be – a non-invasive, non-medication, effective treatment for depression. Dr. St. John continues to have an impressive success rate for treating those with treatment resistant depression.  If you’ve been dealing with depression without acceptable success using traditional depression treatment methods like talk therapy and antidepressant medication, then it may be time to discuss TMS with Dr. St. John.