The grey clouds of depression are difficult to shake.
Approximately eight per cent of Canadian adults will experience a major depression at some point in their lives, according to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Medication often fails to temper the debilitating effects of the illness. Only one third of patients report improvement after their first round of treatment, and some fail to improve regardless of what they’re prescribed.
Gail Bellissimo, a Mississauga mother of four, was one of those people who still suffer even after seeking help.
“I tried just about every drug out there, antidepressant of all kinds,” Bellissimo said. “They just either didn’t work for me or the side effects were too much for me to take.”
But after years of living through the lows, Bellissimo said it only took three minutes to pick her up out of her depression.
She was driving home when her new treatment began to take effect.
“It was so unnerving at first,” she said. “At first it was like, “Wow, is this what it feels like to be normal?’”
Bellissimo participated in a four-week study for something called theta-burst stimulation, a treatment that involves delivering magnetic pulses to the brain.
Theta-burst stimulation is a more powerful type of transcranial magnetic stimulation, a proven form of treatment for illnesses like depression.
The original treatment uses a magnetic-field-generating device that subjects the brain to low-frequency magnetic pulses.
The magnetic field elicits a response in the brain’s neurons, which communicate using electricity.
While the old form of treatment took up to 40 minutes per session, high-frequency theta-burst stimulation takes only three minutes per day – a distinct advantage, according to CAMH’s Daniel Blumberger.
“At 40 minutes, you can treat eight people in a day,” said Blumberger, a clinician scientist at the centre who provides the treatment to his patients. “At three minutes, you can treat 25 people in a day with one machine.”
This new form of magnetic pulse therapy also works on the same wavelength as the brain itself.
“It capitalizes on one of the brain’s natural rhythms,” Blumberger said. “The theta frequency is a frequency that the brain operates at when it’s learning new things and when it’s changing. So it capitalizes on the principle of neuroplasticity.”
The procedure is simple and non-invasive, involving a hand-held wand to deliver bursts.
Bellissimo compares the treatment to a quick tapping on her forehead. The feeling of what it does to her brain, though, is hard to describe.
“It’s exciting. It’s invigorating,” Bellissimo said. “Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming getting used to it.”
Though his trials at CAMH and Toronto Western Hospital won’t be completed until June, Blumberger is already optimistic. The treatment doesn’t even have to be proven more effective than traditional transcranial magnetic stimulation, he said -- it will still be a huge leap forward.
“It’s looking like it’s as good as the regular treatment,” Blumberger said. “Which would be a major change in terms of the number of people that could access this treatment.”
With files from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip