If you’ve ever dealt with depression, you know it’s more than just a negative outlook. Accepting depression as a real disease opens the door to treatment possibilities, which can dramatically improve quality of life. But for those with treatment-resistant depression, treatment options have been limited — until now. A unique form of neuromodulation, a noninvasive stimulation therapy, is helping patients with severe depression to feel better. Some are even in remission.
Known as Stanford Neuromodulation Therapy (SNT), the treatment was developed by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. In 2021, the team conducted a study on SNT, and the results were published in The American Journal of Psychiatry. The findings were impressive, to say the least.
What is neuromodulation?
In broad terms, neuromodulation is a noninvasive treatment for chronic physical and emotional pain. It involves electrical stimulation that’s applied to specific areas of the body, altering nerve activity. The goal is to help the nervous system return to normal function. To treat depression with neuromodulation, doctors apply magnetic stimulation to certain areas of the scalp.
SNT, the therapy used in the Stanford study, is an adaptation of a magnetic stimulation therapy called TMS. As explained in a press release, this stimulation delivers magnetic pulses to specific areas of the brain. The pulses activate neural circuits (a group of neurons that carries out a specific function) that show diminished activity during depressive episodes. Reportedly, the difference between TMS and SNT is that SNT takes much less time on the whole, making it a more accessible and effective treatment for depression.
Testing the Therapy
To test the effectiveness of SNT, researchers at Stanford recruited 29 participants with treatment-resistant depression. About half of the participants received SNT, while the other half received a placebo. Neither the researchers nor the participants knew which subjects received the real therapy.
Before they began, the researchers used neuroimaging to map out each patient’s brain to find the specific areas that needed stimulation. When conducting the therapy, they applied 1,800 pulses per session. (This is substantially more pulses per session than traditional magnetic stimulation, which uses 600 pulses per session.)
The treatment was a success.
Incredibly, Stanford’s neuromodulation therapy eliminated depression in nearly 80 percent of the participants who received it. The researchers used several methods of evaluation in order to diagnose participants as depression-free to accurately determine the treatment’s success. Better yet, the effects were long-lasting.
“My brain has been rebooted,” said one patient who received the treatment. “It’s like this cloud of depression has been lifted from me.”
“I don’t procrastinate anymore,” another study participant said. “I’m sleeping better. I completely quit alcohol. I’m walking my dog and playing the guitar again, for nothing more than the sheer joy of it … I’m remaining positive and being respectful of others. These are big changes in my life.”
The success rate of SNT is far better than that of FDA-approved transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve it, even though TMS requires many more sessions to have an effect, after which only about one third of patients who receive it go into remission.
Stanford’s newest form of neuromodulation is a remarkable step forward, but it’s important to know that it isn’t a cure-all, and won’t work in the same way for everyone. While many participants from the study are still in remission, some relapsed after a few weeks.
Still, the results are very encouraging. We have a long way to go in terms of fighting mental health stigma, but concrete treatment plans such as neuromodulation offer a great deal of hope for the future.