the new mood medicine: an MRI?


Section: SECTION 4 mind

SOMETIMES, NEW TREATMENTS pop up when researchers aren't even looking. Scientists at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, recently stumbled upon the finding that a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) seems to lift the moods of some depressed folks.

The serendipitous discovery occurred when the researchers were investigating medications in a group of people with bipolar disorder. The studies used a type of MRI scan that picked up chemical changes in their brains after treatment with the drugs, and the researchers noticed that after the patients underwent the scan, many reported mood improvements.

So Michael Rohan, an imaging physicist at McLean, and his colleagues began another study to put their finding to the test. The bet paid off: Mood boosts were reported by 77 percent of the 30 bipolar patients who underwent the scan. Of the 11 patients not on medication, all improved.

This treatment is still in the early stages of research, years away from clinical use if all goes well. But this is not the first time electromagnetic fields have been used to treat depression, Rohan says. Researchers have also had some success with a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), but its electric fields are quite strong; they can not only cause discomfort but can carry a slight risk of seizures. The field produced by the MRI used in the McLean study is 500 times weaker than that of rTMS.

Rohan's MRI differs in significant ways from the kind used to make diagnostic pictures. The timing of the electromagnetic pulses may be crucial, Rohan says. He suspects those pulses may affect the firing of nerve impulses in the brain, and that, he speculates, may somehow raise a person's mood.

ELECTRIC LIFT: Electromagnetic pulses from a new form of MRI may help ease depression.


By M. A. Woodbury

Share this with your friends