At the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry in May, researcher Daniel Blumberger reported to this editor (Robert M. Post) that he has found repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to be effective for depression in late life. Blumberger noted that it may be necessary to use higher intensity stimulation (i.e. at 120% of motor threshold instead of the usual 110% of motor threshold) in the elderly in order to overcome the gap between the skull and the brain, which can grow with age due to brain atrophy.
Blumberger has also successfully used rTMS as a followup treatment to a successful course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), administering rTMS twice a week for up to 66 treatments in a given patient in order to maintain remission of their depression.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs in about 2% of the population worldwide. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants are the most commonly used treatment for OCD, but not all patients respond adequately to them.
At the 2015 meeting of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Society, researcher Joseph Zohar presented evidence that deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (deep TMS) targeted over the medial prefrontal cortex may reduce OCD symptoms. In TMS treatment, an electromagnetic coil is placed against the patient’s head and magnetic pulses that can penetrate the scalp are converted into small electrical currents that stimulate neurons in the brain. In Zohar’s study, patients with OCD were randomized to receive deep TMS at frequencies of either 20 Hz or 1 Hz, or a sham procedure. The 20 Hz deep TMS resulted in a 28% reduction in OCD symptoms compared to the other two groups, indicating that the 20 Hz treatment had a large effect size.
In addition to the deep TMS procedures, all patients also received cognitive behavioral therapy, high doses of SSRIs, and relapse prevention training.
Editor’s Note: It is interesting that 20 Hz deep TMS, which activates the prefrontal cortex, was more effective than 1 Hz, which decreases activity there. Other attempts to treat OCD have focused on suppressing frontal-striatal-thalamic circuits, which are overactive in the disorder. Since the medial prefrontal cortex is an important area for the new learning required for the extinction of anxiety symptoms in a variety of disorders, increasing activity in this medial prefrontal target area with 20 Hz may activate that extinction process allowing new learning rather than nonspecifically suppressing hyperactive frontal-striatal-thalamic circuits as 1 Hz TMS would do.
At the 2015 meeting of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Society in May, researcher Stephanie Ameis discussed the dearth of medication studies in children, particularly for depression but also for schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders, which share the symptom of impaired executive functioning, which can include skills such as planning and problem solving.
Ameis noted that in a literature review, there were a total of 1046 controlled pharmacological treatment studies in adults compared to only 106 in children, which reflects a relative absence of treatment knowledge, especially for depression (where there were 303 studies in adults versus only 17 in children) and bipolar disorder (where there were 174 studies of adults and 24 of children).
Ameis then reviewed the few studies of rTMS for depression in young people. She identified several series with only a total of 33 children and adolescents who had been treated with rTMS. She is beginning to study rTMS in patients with high-functioning autism (40 patients aged 16 to 25 have been randomized in her study). Ameis also described a 2013 study of rTMS in which patients with schizophrenia showed improved performance on a test of working memory published by Mera S. Barr and colleagues in the journal Biological Psychiatry. Ameis cited this as a rationale for studying rTMS’s effect on cognitive performance in people with autism.
At the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Society, Canadian researcher Frank MacMaster discussed his study of repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in 50 children with depression. RTMS is a non-invasive procedure in which an electromagnetic coil is placed against the side of the forehead and magnetic pulses that can penetrate the scalp are converted into small electrical currents that stimulate neurons in the brain. The study was designed to identify biomarkers, or characteristics that might indicate which patients were likely to respond to the treatment. All of the patients received rTMS at a frequency of 10 Hz. Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) technology, MacMaster found that children who responded well to rTMS treatment had low levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate at the beginning of the study, but their glutamate levels increased as their depression improved. Children who didn’t improve had higher glutamate levels at the beginning of the study, and these fell during the rTMS treatment.
MacMaster hopes that glutamate levels and other biological indicators such as inflammation will eventually pinpoint which treatments are likely to work best for children with depression. At the meeting, MacMaster said that in Canada, only a quarter of the 1,200,000 children with depression receive appropriate treatment for it. Very little funding is devoted to research on children’s mental health, a serious deficit when one considers that most depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, oppositional behavior, conduct disorder, and substance abuse begins in childhood and adolescence, and early onset of these illnesses has been repeatedly linked to poorer outcomes.
Editor’s Note: The strategy of identifying biomarkers is an important one. MacMaster noted that this type of research is possible due to the phenomenal improvements in brain imaging techniques that have occurred over the past several decades. These techniques include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to a resolution of 1 mm; functional MRI; diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which can depict the connectivity of white matter tracts; and spectroscopy, which can be used to identify chemical markers of neuronal health and inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters, and analyze membrane integrity and metabolic changes. These methods provide exquisite views of the living brain, the most complicated structure in the universe. The biomarkers these techniques may identify will allow clinicians to predict how a patient will respond to a given treatment, to choose treatments more rapidly, and to treat patients more effectively.
A large study of women who took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants in the month before pregnancy and throughout the first trimester suggests that there is a smaller risk of birth defects associated with SSRI use than previously thought, though some risks were elevated in women who took paroxetine or fluoxetine.
The 2015 study, by Jennita Reefhuis and colleagues in the journal BMJ, investigated the drugs citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine, paroxetine, and sertraline, and examined birth defects that had previously been associated with SSRI use in smaller studies. The participants were 17,952 mothers of infants with birth defects and 9,857 mothers of infants without birth defects who had delivered between 1997 and 2009.
Sertraline was the most commonly used SSRI among the women in the study. None of the birth defects included in the study were associated with sertraline use early in pregnancy. The study found that some birth defects were 2 to 3.5 times more likely to occur in women who had taken fluoxetine or paroxetine early in their pregnancies.
Five different birth defects, while uncommon, were statistically linked to paroxetine use: anencephaly (undersized brain), heart problems including atrial septal defects and right ventricular outflow tract obstruction defects, and defects in the abdominal wall including gastroschisis and omphalocele. Two types of birth defects were associated with fluoxetine use: right ventricular outflow tract obstruction defects and craniosynostosis (premature fusion of the skull bones). Absolute incidence of these defects was also low.
At the May meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Deborah Kim gave a talk on the use of repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) for depression in women who are pregnant. In rTMS treatment, an electromagnetic coil is placed against the side of the forehead and magnetic pulses that can penetrate the scalp are converted into small electrical currents that stimulate neurons in the brain. Kim had recently completed an open study of rTMS in pregnant women, in which 70% of the women responded to rTMS. In another controlled randomized study of 30 women (also by Kim), 75% responded to active rTMS and 50% responded to a sham procedure. None of the women included had problems with the fetus or during delivery.
RTMS offers an alternative to women who are reluctant to take antidepressants during pregnancy. Kim cited data by Lee S. Cohen and colleagues in which women taking antidepressants show a 68% relapse rate if they stop taking these medications during pregnancy compared to a 26% relapse rate among those who continue taking antidepressants during pregnancy. Concerns about antidepressants’ potential effects on a fetus may have been overemphasized. Kim summarized the literature on antidepressants in pregnancy, concluding that there is a preponderance of evidence that antidepressants are safe for the mother and fetus, with few serious effects having been observed. Some researchers have been concerned about risks of persistent pulmonary hypertension or autism among offspring of women who took antidepressants during pregnancy, but studies have shown that the absolute risk of either is small. Stay tuned—on Wednesday we’ll discuss a new large and comprehensive study in which most SSRIs showed no link to birth defects, but fluoxetine and paroxetine were associated with risks of certain birth defects.
Editor’s Note: For mild depression during pregnancy, exercise and psychotherapy might be optimal, along with folate and vitamin D3. For moderate depression, omega-3 fatty acids might also be helpful, but it now appears that rTMS would be less risky than electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which in the past has been a typical recommendation for pregnant women, but which exposes the fetus to the effects of anesthesia and seizure. In her summary Kim recommended that women with a pattern of recurrent depression continue antidepressant treatment, especially since a mother’s depression itself poses non-trivial risks to the fetus.
Genetic inheritance is not everything, according to J. Craig Venter, pioneering genetic scientist responsible for sequencing the human genome in 2001:
“Human biology is actually far more complicated than we imagine. Everybody talks about the genes that they received from their mother and father, for this trait or the other. But in reality, those genes have very little impact on life outcomes. Our biology is far too complicated for that and deals with hundreds of thousands of independent factors. Genes are absolutely not our fate. They can give us useful information about the increased risk of a disease, but in most cases they will not determine the actual cause of the disease, or the actual incidence of somebody getting it. Most biology will come from the complex interaction of all the proteins and cells working with the environmental factors, not driven directly by the genetic code.”
At the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Clinical TMS Society this past May, this editor (Robert M. Post) discussed remission rates for repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (RTMS), which at 30% leave room for improvement. It may be possible to personalize treatment parameters to achieve better success in individual patients.
RTMS is a non-invasive procedure in which a magnetic coil placed near a patient’s head delivers electrical currents to their brain. High frequency stimulation (10Hz to 20Hz) increases brain activity as measured on PET scans, and low frequency stimulation (1Hz) decreases it, so it might be possible to choose the best frequency for an individual patient based on their baseline level of brain activity. If this is not possible, patients who fail to respond to one frequency might be switched over to the other frequency.
RTMS can be given during active positive cognitive behavioral therapy. Patients primed with positive thoughts and feelings may find that rTMS enhances these. (Some practitioners in the audience indicated that they already combine therapy and rTMS and have seen good results).
RTMS might enhance extinction learning, or the breaking of a habitual way of thinking, as it stimulates the media prefrontal cortex, a critical area for new learning. D-cycloserine, a partial glutamate agonist, has been shown to enhance extinction, and since rTMS releases glutamate and BDNF, it might also do the same.
It may also be possible to use rTMS in conjunction with medications (such as valproate) that affect epigenetic changes on the histones around which DNA is wrapped (because valproate is a histone de-acetylase inhibitor, preventing the removal of acetyl groups from the histones and allowing them to be transcribed more easily). Valproate enhances extinction learning in animals, so the stimulation of the medial prefrontal cortex and the increase in BDNF and glutamate that occur with rTMS may interact to potentiate this extinction learning.
One could also envision using rTMS to enhance learning during the memory re-consolidation window that opens 5 minutes to an hour after a person actively recalls old memories, and which can lead to more permanent memory alterations in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.
Since patients are awake and able to talk during rTMS, making use of evoked thoughts and memories specifically for a given patient may lead to enhanced clinical effects, because these neural pathways are more selective activated and potentiated, leading to what is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
George Koob, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, discussed the neuroscience of chronic drug use at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry. His basic message was that chronic drug use is associated with A) loss of the reward value of the drug and B) a progressive increase in dysphoria and stress when off the drug. Both factors drive craving and drug seeking.
Access to high as opposed to moderate doses of a drug lead to an escalation in drug intake, and associated persistent increases in withdrawal dysphoria, which Koob called “the dark side.”
Koob explained that a month of detoxification is not sufficient, and that people quitting a drug need more time to let dopamine increase and to let levels of corticotropin releasing factor (CRF), which drives the anxiety and dysphoria of withdrawal, normalize. He stressed that for people addicted to opiates, it is important to taper levels of the drug to minimize withdrawal symptoms.
In addition to CRF, dynorphin also plays a role in chronic drug abuse. This opiate peptide acts at kappa opiate receptors and is associated with anxiety, dysphoria, and psychosis as opposed to morphine, which acts at mu opiate receptors and is associated with euphoria and decreased pain. Koob found that administration of the kappa opiate antagonist norbinaltorphimine (nor-BNI) blocks dose escalation of methamphetamine and brings abstinence-related compulsive drug seeking back to baseline.