When medicine just doesn’t work, a Calgary psychiatrist suggests patients suffering from depression turn to repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (RTMS).
“We use it (RTMS) as a method of treating what we call treatment resistant depression,” said Dr. Lisa Harpur, who works at one of two RTMS clinics in Calgary.
“So that’s defined as a depression that doesn’t respond well to at least two different medications, or in people who can’t tolerate side effects or who can’t tolerate the medication trials — then we can try the transcranial magnetic stimulation.”
For people suffering from depression, circuits in the brain that are meant to communicate with each other, don’t. RTMS sees magnetic coils built into a cap which is placed on the patient’s head. The coils then deliver repetitive pulses of magnetic energy to a specific area on the scalp covering the part of the brain believed to be related to depression.
“The repetitive pulses actually start to create neuroplasticity in the brain, and it’s that neuroplasticity that gets the brain connections, basically reconnected,” Harpur said.
“It can be a little bit annoying and feels a little bit like an elastic band being hit on your skin,” she laughed.
Annoying or not, Harpur has seen dramatic changes in her patients.
“People’s moods lift, they feel more energetic, they feel like they want to connect with people in their life again,” she said.
Patients undergo a total of 30 treatments over six weeks with each one lasting anywhere from as little as three minutes to up to 37-and-a-half minutes. RTMS is non-invasive and relatively painless.
“They come in for their treatment. They can go right back to work or do their daily activities, so there’s no downtime after the treatment,” Harpur said, adding that the treatment doesn’t work for everyone but that it’s typically effective in alleviating at least 50 per cent to 100 per cent of symptoms related to depression in about two-thirds of the people she treats.
“Our clinic is such a happy clinic, because we feel so good about what we do,” she said. “You know, we’re able to see the changes in people over those 30 sessions and it’s remarkable.”
There are a total of five RTMS clinics in Alberta: two in Calgary, two in Edmonton and one in Ponoka. Harpur said there is an ongoing initiative to bring more programs to other areas of the province but that there is currently a lack of funding to do so.
The five clinics have been working together to try to secure those funds. Each has been providing the same treatment and then collecting data from questionnaires that they have patients fill out at follow-up visits.
“We’re collecting that data and we’d like to provide it to the province to hopefully make a case for building this program and expanding it to different hospitals and getting it included in the budget for mental health as part of a prescribed treatment,” Harpur said.
Anyone currently looking to receive RTMS treatment at any of the clinics in the province must first be referred by their family doctor before going through a screening process by the clinic. People can also contact Harpur’s clinic at the Rockyview Hospital in Calgary by emailing them directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).