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Magnets show promise in relieving depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms

A patient undergoes a procedure that stimulates the frontal part of the brain with a rapidly changing magnetic field. The treatment is seen as an alternative for techniques to treat post-traumatic stress. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chad Usher) A patient undergoes a procedure that stimulates the frontal part of the brain with a rapidly changing magnetic field. The treatment is seen as an alternative for techniques to treat post-traumatic stress. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chad Usher)

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An alternative treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder might come in the form of a magnet. Researchers are studying a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, which applies a rapidly changing magnetic field to the front part of the brain.

“This pulse affects the medial pre-frontal cortex (the front area of the head and brain), where you make decisions about processing personal information, such as autobiographical memories [affecting post-traumatic stress],” said Army Maj. John Coleman with the department of clinical investigation at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. Stimulating the neurons there can increase serotonin, a biochemical in the brain thought to regulate moods, he said.

Coleman studied the effects of the treatment on 77 patients who came into his clinic. Overall, the treatment significantly lowered depression and post-traumatic stress index scores, meaning patients felt less depressed and had fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms after treatment. Used since 1995, not only does the treatment help with post-traumatic stress, it also keeps warfighters off specific meds, such as those known commercially as Zoloft and Prozac, which can disqualify them from some kinds of military work.

“In certain duties, such as submarine duties, people aren’t allowed to take some medications. They’re instantly unfit for duties,” said Coleman, pointing out this magnetic treatment carries no such disqualifiers. “It’s a nonmedication treatment, still doing what we want.”

Coleman’s research was part of a larger discussion on complementary and alternative techniques to treat post-traumatic stress held during the Military Health System Research Symposium in Kissimmee, Florida. Topics ranged from more conventional means, such as using a 100-year-old technique to block a certain nerve ganglion in the neck, to other methods, such as yoga and transcendental meditation.

Ronald Hoover, the clinical and psychological health research portfolio manager with the Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command, moderated the discussion and said it’s important to look at different ways to treat ailments.

“There are alternatives to treating [post-traumatic stress] that go beyond either a medication or psychotherapy approach,” said Hoover. “Some people don’t want to take medications because of the impact on their career. Similarly, some patients find psychotherapies to be very intrusive and time consuming. They’d rather handle the problem themselves, because as part of their basic training, they’re taught to be self-sufficient, and they want to carry that into their health care.”

Using alternative therapies isn’t a new concept, as art and music therapies have been used for a while in main military clinics. “The whole idea behind complementary and alternative medical interventions is to offer a large variety of alternatives to the conventional treatments or augment those conventional treatments and allow the individual some choices in his or her care,” said Hoover.

Hoover said the symposium not only provides updates on the state of the science, it also stimulates even more research.

“It should give a great menu of choices for clinicians and patients,” said Hoover, adding people are particularly interested in meeting the challenges of post-traumatic stress without some of the stigmas some people might have with seeking this kind of help. “We’re looking for alternatives that are more palatable for service members and empower them to make a choice.”

The Military Health System Research Symposium is the only large, broad-based research conference focusing on the unique medical needs of the military.

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