22 June 2016

A new treatment for severe depression is to be introduced at the Linköping University Hospital. It uses magnetic stimulation of nerve cells deep in the brain. The method is currently in use at a very limited number of hospitals worldwide.

Increasing numbers of people suffer from depression. The World Health Organisation says that within 10 to 20 years, depression will be the most common disease in the world.

“It affects people to varying degrees. All depression involves suffering, and the most serious cases can lead to suicide or death by other causes, such as heart disease,” says Markus Heilig, professor of psychiatry and coordinator of the treatment at the Linköping University Hospital.

Professor Heilig works at the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience (CSAN) at Linköping University, and the treatment takes place in collaboration with the psychiatric clinic at the Linköping University Hospital.

Electric convulsive treatment

Since modern drugs with fewer side effects were developed in the 1990s, more sufferers have been helped.

“The problem is that one in three patients doesn’t respond to these drugs. And these patients aren’t from the most gravely affected patients, who require electric convulsive treatment, ECT,” says Professor Heilig.

The treatment now being implemented is called dTMS – deep transcranial magnetic stimulation. In dTMS, the patient puts on a helmet and is subject to light stimulation through the nerve cells at a depth of 5 to 6 centimetres into the brain.

“We don’t know exactly how it helps patients, but we know that it does help them. One hypothesis is that the nerve tissue of depression sufferers shrivels up, because the networks between the cells have lost contact with each other. The stimulation makes the nerve cells grow, causing the connections to re-form. As a result the patient’s functions return. In any case, most see a marked improvement.”

Tested in 17 studies

The patients are treated for a period of about four weeks, 20 to 30 minutes per day. During this period they can live their lives as usual, living at home, and with no need for medication.

The method has been tested in 17 studies on several hundred patients, and the treatment has been approved in the United States.

“We now have the equipment and the expertise here, and we view the method as unusually safe,” says Professor Heilig.

Treatment of patients will commence this summer, and will increase to full scale at the end of the summer. It is a collaboration between Linköping University and Region Östergötland – the county council.

Photo, top: Eva Bergstedt
Photo, Markus Heilig: Göran Billeson