Sunday, December 21, 2008

New treatment for seizures uses magnetism

THE controversial psychiatric practice of electric shock therapy to treat depression could soon be replaced by magnetic technology with no side effects.

The Alfred hospital's Psychiatry Research Centre is testing a machine that induces seizures the way electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, does, but with less harmful magnetic fields instead of electric currents.

If trials on Australian patients go well, "magnetic seizure therapy" could rapidly replace ECT in Australian hospitals, centre deputy director Professor Paul Fitzgerald said.

"This could benefit thousands of patients … We have wanted to get trials under way for some time now, but have had to wait for the technology to catch up," he said.

Professor Fitzgerald said magnetic fields had already induced seizures in some patients without the side effects associated with ECT, but he said more trials with better technology were required to prove its efficacy.

Despite its reputation as a brutal practice, ECT has become increasingly common in the past 10 years, thanks to improvements in safety and the belief by many psychiatrists that it is the most powerful treatment for severely depressed people.

Medicare data shows the number of Government-funded treatments rose about 55 per cent from 12,480 in 1997-98 to 19,026 in 2007-08, costing the taxpayer more than $7 million.

But Professor Fitzgerald said many patients still suffered distressing side effects, including memory loss and disorientation.

He said the new machine — one of four in the world — was delivered to The Alfred last week to begin trials on Australian patients for the first time.

Professor Fitzgerald said he hoped the technology would benefit people who did not respond to first-line treatments for depression, such as antidepressant medications.

"There has been a lot of energy and effort put into depression awareness and early identification, which is great, but what hasn't been addressed is that about 30 per cent of people don't respond to treatment," he said. "We really need to substantially enhance the range of options these people have because they are at substantial risk of suicide … they are really suffering."


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