It’s an unfortunate fact that many people who suffer from depression go untreated. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 46 percent of U.S. adults with any type of mental illness receive treatment. And even among those who do get help, an unlucky few find that their illness is impervious to therapy and medication. According to a 2019 research article published in BMC Psychiatry, up to 30 percent of patients with major depressive disorder will experience treatment-resistant depression (TRD). But a recent study from the Stanford University School of Medicine, which tested a new type of experimental treatment, sparks hope with an encouragingly high success rate. Read on to find out about this exciting new treatment that has the potential to be life-changing for people struggling with TRD.
RELATED: This Common Medication Could Be Hurting Your Brain, New Study Says.
According to a Stanford Medicine news article, nearly 80 percent of patients with TRD were helped by a treatment called neuromodulation therapy. “The treatment, known as Stanford Accelerated Intelligent Neuromodulation Therapy (SAINT) or simply Stanford neuromodulation therapy, is an intensive, individualized form of transcranial magnetic stimulation,” the article explains. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a form of brain stimulation which is non-invasive and uses a device to send powerful magnetic energy to activate neurons that are underactive in the brain.
As part of Stanford’s double-blind controlled experiment, 14 of the 29 total participants—who had suffered from depression for an average of nine years and were between the ages of 22 and 80—received SNT, while the rest experienced a placebo treatment. After just five days, researchers concluded that 78.6 percent of treated individuals were no longer depressed, and within four weeks of the experiment, 11 of the 14 participants who recieved SAINT met the FDA criteria for depression remission.
A similar treatment, called intermittent theta-burst stimulation (or iTBS), was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2019. It involves daily sessions over the course of six weeks, and has been shown to lessen depression symptoms in about 50 percent of patients.
To produce better results in a shorter time frame, SAINT uses higher pulse volumes per session and gives patients more frequent, but shorter, treatments: 10 daily 10-minute sessions. SAINT also applies more targeted methods for each patient, with doctors doing further preliminary research into each person’s individual brain circuitry before treatment.
One of the most exciting things about SAINT is how quickly it seems to work. Many treatments for depression, including iTBS, take weeks, or even months, to relieve patients’ symptoms. With antidepressant medication, for example, people typically don’t start to reap the full benefits until about eight to 12 weeks after they begin taking them, say the experts at Verywell Mind. And the Mayo Clinic says talk therapy methods, including psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), take time and can be difficult. “It’s not uncommon to feel worse during the initial part of therapy as you begin to confront past and current conflicts,” they explain.
Stanford’s stimulation therapy reduces the timing of results to mere days, which researchers hope could make it a viable option for patients who are at a “crisis point.”
“We want to get this into emergency departments and psychiatric wards where we can treat people who are in a psychiatric emergency,” said Nolan Williams, MD, one of the study’s senior authors. “The period right after hospitalization is when there’s the highest risk of suicide.”
For more up-to-date information, sign up for our
For patients who aren’t helped by more conventional depression treatments, electroconvulsive therapy and vagus nerve stimulation are two other, albeit more invasive, options.
According to the Mayo Clinic, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, sometimes also known as “shock therapy”) induces a brief seizure by sending a series of small electric currents through the brain while the patient is under anesthesia. Although still fairly controversial, approximately one million people undergo the procedure each year, and one Cambridge study found that over 40 percent of people who had it experienced remission of depression symptoms.
Vagus nerve stimulation is a procedure commonly used to treat epilepsy, but may also be used to treat depression. Like ECT, it sends electrical pulses to the brain, but through an FDA-approved device implanted in the chest, the Mayo Clinic explains. The device then sends signals through the body’s left vagus nerve to the brainstem. A 2005 study in Biological Psychiatry showed that 27 percent of participants experienced “significant improvement” after undergoing vagus nerve stimulation.
RELATED: If You Wake Up Often at Night, You Could Be Lacking This Nutrient.