The idea that the brain is electrochemical in its function is pretty well established these days. So it stands to reason that magnetic therapy or electrical stimulation of the brain could be used to treat a host of neurological and psychological illnesses if properly applied.
Perhaps the most popularized magnetic therapy for the brain has been ECT (electro convulsive therapy). Commonly called shock treatment: For many years doctors have turned to electroshock treatment when the more conventional methods of talk therapy and prescription medications have failed to successfully treat depression and other brain disorders. However, as a magnetic therapy ECT has a nasty reputation for being overly brutal. ECT has improved over the years but is still considered to be a relatively harsh treatment.
A relatively new brain magnetic therapy is called rTMS (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation). Unlike shock treatment, which is a sudden jolt of electricity, rTMS is a repetition of much smaller pulses of magnetic energy administered to the brain over a 20 to 30 minute session. Dr. Anthony Barker of the United Kingdom developed TMS, which was its precursor, in the 1980s. Improvements in magnetic therapy technology in the 1990s led to better magnetic coils allowing high or low frequency magnetic waves and much more accurate targeting of specific parts of the brain. The current version integrating all these improvements is called rTMS or slow TMS if the magnetic waves are applied very slowly.
From the perspective of the patient the procedure is very simple. It is an outpatient procedure lasting about 40 minutes from start to finish. There is no need for an anesthetic or complicated preparation as is common with shock treatment. The machine used resembles in outward appearance what you would find in a dentists office. You sit in a chair that reclines backwards. The rTMS itself is near the head of your chair. Then a device containing the magnetic coil is placed on the upper part of your forehead. The doctor then adjusts the magnetic coil to target very specific parts of your brain and turns the magnetic coil on. About 30 minutes later you are done with the magnetic therapy.
The positive effects on your brain are very similar to shock treatment but the negative side effects from rTMS magnetic therapy are a radical improvement. There is no memory loss as is common with shock treatment and the chance of a seizure is almost eliminated completely. The most commonly reported side effects from rTMS magnetic therapy are a mild headache, probably resulting from stimulation of muscles in the scalp and discomfort from heat generated by the magnetic coil. Both are relatively mild and short term side effects.
rTMS is proving to be effective at treating not just depression but also many other brain and neurological disorders. Migraine headaches, stroke, epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and osteoarthritis have all been treated in controlled testing with varying degrees of success.
Unfortunately, all of this magnetic therapy is very new. Today it is very unlikely that you will find an rTMS machine outside of limited controlled testing at very high end research hospitals. rTMS machines gained FDA approval early in 2007 so it will likely be a while before hospitals start getting the machines and use them on a regular basis.