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TMS offers hope for depression sufferers

By Alana Melanson

Last Updated: 11/16/2015

Copyright © 2016 Everyday Health Media, LLC

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LITTLETON — Laura Zenga settled into the big chair, reminiscent of one found in a dentist’s office, in a room at the New England Center for Mental Health last week.

The treatment coordinator, Victoria Cruz-Howsare, accessed her brain map and moved the arm of the NeuroStar machine, placing the portion housing the magnetic coil on Zenga’s head. As the 37-minute timer began to tick down, a tapping noise emerged as the machine delivered bursts of magnetic pulses to Zenga’s neurons, activating the neurotransmitters she has been lacking as a result of depression.

“The best way that I can describe it is that it’s kind of like a small woodpecker in one spot, but it doesn’t hurt that much,” Zenga said. “You get used to it.”

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is a relatively new treatment for depression. It produces magnetic pulses similar to those found in magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI machines, but precisely targeted to certain areas of the brain to produce a therapeutic response.

TMS was approved for adults by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2008, but only in the last couple years have insurance companies begun to cover the treatment, said NECMH Medical Director Dr. Madhavi Kamireddi.

Some still do not. Without coverage, the entire course of treatment carries a price tag of $9,500 for the patient, Cruz-Howsare said.

Of the NECMH patients treated with TMS, 71 percent have responded so positively that they have mild to no symptoms of depression, she said.

Of these patients, 42 percent have been affected so greatly they have entered remission for their depression.

Those who respond well to TMS may experience the positive side effects for years afterward, Kamireddi said, while others may have to return for maintenance treatments.

For long-term sufferers of depression like Zenga, TMS is a godsend after years spent trying one pharmaceutical after another and finding little relief from often debilitating symptoms.

Zenga, a 28-year-old medical assistant from Tewksbury, has suffered from depression since high school. She said her family was great, but she was consistently socially rejected by her peers from childhood.

“So it just kind of became this all-encompassing loneliness and I just kind of didn’t feel like I was necessary, if that makes sense, to be here,” Zenga said.

She didn’t know what the hopelessness was until she sought help during college, and entered regular therapy that continued afterwards.

Zenga has tried several medications, including Prozac, Lexapro and Wellbutrin, but said each only raised her up a bit before leveling off. She is now on Zoloft, which she has continued taking since starting the TMS treatment about three weeks ago.

Zenga said she began to notice differences in herself after about the seventh treatment. She began to feel more stable throughout the day, less irritable and better able to handle everyday stresses. Zenga’s outlook on life has been bleak for a long time, but she is beginning to feel more hopeful about the future and her prospects to find a partner and have children.

While it’s still difficult for her to see the things she wants, “I’m at least putting myself in a position where it’s a possibility,” she said.

Littleton resident Libby Dagostino, 24, said her life has been changed by TMS.

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