Canadian researchers are studying a new method to treat depression that could replace the radical treatment commonly known as electroshock therapy.

Developed in the 1930s, electroconvulsive therapy is still used today a means to treat severe depression in patients that have not responded to other treatment, such as counselling or medication.

The therapy involves electric currents being passed through the brain, generally as patients are under anesthesia. The current triggers a brief seizure, which provides a therapeutic effect. However, electroshock therapy is also shown to cause memory loss and disorientation in some patients. 

Dr. Jeff Daskalakis, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is one of the researchers testing a more modern, potentially safer approach to electroshock therapy called magnetic seizure therapy.

He said the new method is shown to provide the same benefits of electroshock therapy without harming patients’ memories.

“Being one of the few centres in North America, and in the world, to deliver this treatment, it’s always exciting because you feel you are on the brink of something tremendous,” Daskalakis told CTV News.

Magnetic seizure therapy involves the use of magnetic coils that are placed on a patient’s head and turned on. The magnetic pluses penetrate select regions of the brain.

“It’s all focused,” said Daskalakis, explaining that the therapy is targeted to areas of the brain that are involved in depression.

While the experimental therapy has been tested in 20 individuals suffering from depression, researchers are planning to test another 200 patients.

On Nov. 13 the CAMH will open the new Centre for Therapeutic Brain Intervention that offers magnetic seizure therapy.

Researchers say they’ve seen positive results in the patients who have been tested so far.

“What we are seeing is people improving and almost no cognitive impairment,” said Dr. Daniel Blumberg.

Approximately 50 per cent of patients who underwent magnetic seizure therapy have experienced a “remarkable response” to the treatment, said Daskalakis.

Jane Webber of Colborne, Ont. is one of the patients who have undergone magnetic seizure therapy. Having battled depression for nearly two decades, she said electroconvulsive therapy was one of the few treatments that worked. However the treatment had severe effects on her memory.

“I couldn't use email because I could not remember the sequence of tasks to get on, and so I found it very frustrating,” she said.

Webber said she prefers magnetic seizure therapy to shock therapy.

“It helped me feel like I was back to myself,” she said. “I didn’t have that brain fog and it was easier to recover from.”

According to Health Canada, 16 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men will experience major depression in the course of their lives.

Daskalakis said with such a significant portion of the population struggling with depression, more treatment options need to be offered.

“This is the next step,” he said.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip