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Magnetic Therapy Can Provide Alternative Treatment For Depression

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Depression is a leading cause of poor health, disability and suicide – and medications only help some depression patients.

Many also cannot take the side effects.

But as CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reported, magnets might offer relief by rewiring the patient's brain.

Each year, Americans spend billions of dollars on antidepressants. But studies show they can be ineffective in up to 40 percent of all patients.

Bob Holmes was one of them.

"They tried to adjust my medication, but the medication had side effects that weren't desirable," Holmes said.

Holmes is among the 16 million people in the U.S. who suffer major depressive episodes each year – a number that has increased 18 percent over the last decade. For that reason, some doctors at UCLA are taking a different approach.

Doctors beam magnetic pulses deep inside patients' brains to change the way depression symptoms are perceived.

"We are used to thinking of the brain as a chemical organ, but it's also an electrical organ," said Dr. Andrew Leuchter of UCLA Health.

"The idea that by using non-chemical means, we can change the brain and how it functions," said Dr. Ian Cook of UCLA Health.

It is called NeuroStar transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. It is currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration only to treat depression, but doctors say it may prove helpful in a wide range of conditions by rewiring a network of signals in the brain.

"What TMS is doing is changing how that network functions, really rebooting the network to improve symptoms of mood, anxiety and chronic pain," Leuchter said.

That may be why patients treated for depression also say it helps relieve their pain, raising provocative questions about whether TMS could one day become a viable alternative to opioids.

"This is a really transformative kind of therapy," Cook said.

But for now, it has made a dramatic difference in Holmes' depression.

"It provided that kind of jolt to get my brain to start work again normally," he said.

Reportedly, TMS can feel a bit uncomfortable at first – but many patients quickly get used to it. They report substantial relief from their symptoms of depression within a few weeks.

Even though the NeuroStar system has been approved for depression since 2008, it is only recently that doctors have realized its effectiveness for everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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