It's called repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS).
As this 2005 illustration from Hubert Dinse in Germany shows, it involves placing a figure-eight shaped electromagnet next to a patient's head and then turning it on-and-off repeatedly.
The device was cleared for use by the FDA in 2008.
The latest rTMS headline is a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston (Stephen Colbert gave their 2009 commencement speech) studying the use of rTMS on cases of acute depression.
Some 860 people who had not responded to conventional antidepressants were in the study, which claimed a 14% success rate.
Reaction to the result was mixed.
Psychiatric News was glad to see an alternative to the very-nasty Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or electroshock. But a blog at Psychology Today dismissed it as "the 14% solution," although it should be noted that after those on the phony treatment got the real thing total remission was 30%.
The LA Times focused on the double-blind nature of the study, and the fact that researchers created a device that mimicked the actual rTMS system without doing anything. Tonic.com called the results "quite impressive," given the number of people tested.
The researchers in South Carolina have serious experience with this treatment. Researcher Sarah Lisanby reported on it two years ago, finding that the failure of other techniques for treating depression was the best predictor of success with rTMS.
So while this may seem like a step back toward medievalism, it's not. We're talking about cases of depression that don't respond to talk therapy, don't respond to medication, for which the previous best-treatment involved electroshock.
Maybe just 14-30% of these patients respond well, and yes that's a pretty bad figure compared with results for heart and cancer treatments.
But if it were your loved one suffering, I suspect you'd grab that slender reed of chance. And I guess further funding for rTMS seems assured.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com