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A new therapy with magnets is helping people with depression when nothing else works

Stanford researchers share a remarkable new treatment for treatment-resistant depression.

Like many young people, Chase, 18, noticed she was developing symptoms of depression when the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Although she'd tried medications and therapy, Chase felt her symptoms get worse over the course of a few months. And she knew things were really getting serious when thoughts of suicide crept in.

That's when her mother found research about a new type of treatment for depression called Stanford neuromodulation therapy, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate the brain. (It was previously referred to as Stanford accelerated intelligent neuromodulation therapy or SAINT.)

Chase, 18, benefitted from a new experimental depression therapy.
Chase, 18, benefitted from a new experimental depression therapy.TODAY

The treatment is similar to transcranial magnetic stimulation, a non-invasive therapy that's been used to help treat depression for about 15 years.

With TMS, patients receive painless magnetic pulses to specific areas of their brains. Experts don't totally understand how it works, but this type of stimulation appears to activate certain brain areas and gradually relieve symptoms of depression, the Mayo Clinic explains. And it's particularly useful for patients who have already tried more conventional options, like medication and therapy.

But TMS can take a while to actually work. Typically, patients will have to undergo one TMS session per day, five days a week, for a few weeks or months.

SNT uses the same basic concept but with an accelerated, more intensive regimen, Dr. Nolan Williams, assistant professor of psychiatry and brain sciences at Stanford University, told NBC News investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen in a segment aired Thursday.

With this therapy, patients get 10 treatments per day for five days with an hour between each session. And it can be used alongside other treatments, like medication, that a patient may already be on.

"You have a thing attached next to your head, and it’ll just kind of tap and you can hear it," Chase said, adding that she spent the time during her sessions watching Netflix. "It’s just like tapping for 10 minutes. ... Then you have 45 minutes for a break and then you do it again."

For another patient Sergio, 30, the changes happened quickly. "It really is just a fundamentally different treatment," he said. "It just works. The symptoms that are gone, there is just immediate relief."

The symptoms that are gone, there is just immediate relief," Sergio told NBC News investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen.
The symptoms that are gone, there is just immediate relief," Sergio told NBC News investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen.TODAY

In a small recent study, published in October in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Williams and his colleagues compared results from 14 participants who received SNT to 15 who received a placebo treatment. After four weeks, participants who'd gotten SNT showed a 52% reduction in their depression symptoms compared to 11% in the control group.

"It’s humbling to be able to see that your work has had a positive impact on people and able to change their life," said Williams, who is also the director of the Brain Stimulation Lab at Stanford. Now, Williams and his team are looking to continue validating those results in clinical trials, which are currently recruiting participants all over the country.

These days, Chase is able to get back to the gym and feels like her energy levels are up. The thoughts of self-harm and suicide have also reduced significantly, she said.

Sergio has also noticed significant changes in his mood and behavior since the treatment. "It’s wonderful to be able to enjoy the things I loved again," he said. "I have a greater appreciation for life and all of the gifts and blessings that I have."