Magnetic course for happier days

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A magnet on the brain may make you happy - but only if you are deeply depressed, a study by Spanish doctors says.

Their findings suggest that pulses from a four-inch, figure-of-eight- shaped magnet placed over the brain may one day replace electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and drugs - which have unpleasant side-effects - as the treatment of choice for profound depression.

The finding, published in The Lancet today, follows development in the 1980s, at the University of Sheffield, of single- pulsed magnets which are increasingly used in brain research to stimulate or block parts of its activity. Present options for chronically depressed patients are "dismal", The Lancet said, but five 25-minute sessions of treatment over five days with magnet therapy produced pronounced improvement for a fortnight in 17 patients treated in a trial at the University of Valencia.

Although the effect of the treatment lasts a much shorter time than the three to four months of benefit from ECT (when it works), the results are promising. And, unlike ECT, it does not induce seizures, no anaesthesia is required and side-effects are minimal: seven patients reported a minor headache.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the neurobiologist who led the study, said they "don't really know" how magnetism treatment works - which applies equally to ECT - "but we think it works differently".

Profound depression, he said, appears to result from a mismatch in activity between the two halves of the brain. ECT shuts down the brain with convulsion- producing current, the theory being that the two halves bounce back in better balance. Magnetic treatment targets only the tiny area of the left prefrontal lobe, the pulses being used to simulate activity in an area known to have abnormally low activity in depression.

Professor Alvaro Pascual-Leone said studies were being done on possible applications in a range of neurological conditions, from Parkinson's to epilepsy.