Imagine this scenario in a doctor’s office of the future.
You walk in to visit your family doctor and complain that you’re suffering from depression. Your doctor agrees, but instead of prescribing you Prozac, she instead hands you an electronic gadget in the shape of a wand – much like a metal detector used by airport security – she tells you to point it at a specific area of your head and turn it on for 10 minutes, twice a day. The magnetic field will zap away your depression and leave you feeling relaxed instead.
It sounds like sci-fi techno-wizardry, but this sort of treatment may very well be a viable future treatment for sufferers of depression in 10 or 20 years if the research of Dr. Alex Thomas and other scientists like him takes off. Personal devices might be a possible future, but repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) treatment is a reality in Canada today.
Thomas is a scientist with London, Ont.-based Lawson Health Research Institute. He’s also the founder of Fralex Therapeutics Inc., which was bought last year by Baylis Medical Company Inc.
Health Canada gave the thumbs up years ago to a not-so-mobile device that exposes a patient’s brain to a large magnetic field. It’s used to treat those suffering depression who aren’t responding well to drug therapy. It’s no quack science – there are 1390 medial research papers available on rTMS on PubMed, a collection of international research hosted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Now Thomas is working on a different approach to rTMS. Instead of exposing the entire brain to a large magnetic field, he wants to target specific areas of the brain with weaker and more focused magnetic fields. The research has implications for therapeutic practices, but I think it also raises questions about the safety of cell phones.
“We’re trying to create a gradient field that will create a virtual lesion, to numb a specific area of the brain or to hyperstimulate it,” Thomas says.
In essence, the weak magnetic pulses act like a maestro to the brain’s neurons. When it is turned on, the neurons fire synchronously and when it turns off, the neurons stop firing. Repeated pulses can turn a brain that is in chaos back into a brain that is ordered and coordinated.
“I would expect to see regulatory approval and marketing occur in the European Union in the foreseeable future,” Thomas says. Fralex is also seeking approval in Canada, and Baylis is producing a therapeutic unit based on the weaker pulse method.
The side effects of this therapy should be tame when compared to pharmacology, which affects the entire body, Thomas argues. But there are some known side effects. Since the pulse aims to reduce emotional pain, people receiving the pulse therapy tend to feel an effect of relaxation.
Anecdotally, the side effects go further than that, Thomas says. Some volunteers after receiving five to 10 minutes of exposure are unable to thing of any one single thing that bothers them.
Now that sounds fine when you’re talking about a clinical therapy method. But it becomes creepy when you realize our cell phones generate the same sort of electromagnetic fields that these rTMS devices do. You have to wonder if we’re unknowingly numbing ourselves into a relaxed state of apathy.
It’s not an easy question to answer, Thomas says. Because adequate research hasn’t been done to fully understand the effect of long term exposure on the brain.
“We still can’t say what the level of exposure that produces objective or subjective effects in humans actually is, and we’re one of the major centres in the world actually testing this,” he says. “I’m in a position to fear monger if I wanted too. You can’t prove a negative, all we can do is examine and come up with a scientific best guess at what the effects might be.”
If Thomas has demonstrated that weak magnetic fields can have a measurable and predictable effect on the human brain, then serious questions must be raised about cell phones that produce similar fields. Some initial research into cell phone safety indicates there is a potential human health risk, especially for children.
Electromagnetic fields from cell phones penetrate living tissue and seep into the brain. We just haven’t been using cell phones long enough to know exactly what this might be doing to us.