A Helmet That Treats Mental Illness?

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Who else immediately thought of this when they heard that I was attending an open house to check out a helmet that could make you happy:

c0ec7e61-HappyHelmet

Well, Ren and Stimpy’s helmet it is not, but for patients with treatment resistant depression? It could make them sing the Happy Happy Joy Joy song. Or the Log song. Or the Don’t Whizz On The Electric Fence song. Childhood was magical.

Treating depression and other mental illnesses has a long history of failure, quackery, and patient abuse. Everything from warehousing to frontal lobotomies have been deployed for treating different degrees of mental illnesses. Horrifyingly to us today, lobotomies were once thought of as a huge step forward in treating mental illnesses.

Now, we have a bountiful amount of ways to treat mental illness that’s both much more humane and effective. SSRIs. SNRIs. Anti-psychotics. Mood stabilizers. Anti-anxiety medications. You name a mental illness, we have a drug that works a LOT better than the archaic and sometimes barbaric methods that we once used. Are they perfect? No.  However, for mental health patients worldwide with a huge range of disorders, they represent a huge step forward in care and relief from the agony of their illnesses. Mental healthcare is just as important as taking care of the body, and breakthroughs with these drugs have been key in giving people their lives back.

But… what about the cases that we don’t hear about as success stories?

There are cases that are resistant to treatment. They go through years of being bounced from one psychiatrist’s office to the next, trying every medication on the market (even combinations of meds), and they get somewhere between no relief and minimal relief with standard treatment. At this point some people fall prey to the insidious marketing tactics of alternative medicine telling them- with severe, resistant to treatment cases of mental illness- that they just need to go organic/paleo/vegan/just get some sunshine and think happy thoughts. And you know my opinions on that.

So when I got an email a few weeks ago to attend an open house at a psychiatrist’s office to have a look at the Brainsway Deep TMS (TMS stands for transcranial magnetic stimulation), I was interested but skeptical. Magnetic therapy for things like joint pain is bullshit, how did I know this wasn’t someone selling me something when they were… selling me something?

Like a good skeptical scientist, I started asking for evidence before I put any information about it on my website.

Had it been through phase three clinical trials? Yes.

Was it FDA approved? Yes.

Did they have long term clinical data? Yes.

Well you have my attention now. And they should have yours too. I went to Dr. Koo’s office before her open house and had a live video interview. She explained a bit about the helmet and answered all the questions that my followers had sent in the night before. She also gave me a quick demonstration of how it works to stimulate my hand via a calibration test:

Part 1 and Part 2 (my hand really jumps in part 2, and she explains a bit how it works- each video is only about 30 seconds). It was a bit creepy that she could control my hand via stimulating my brain, but it made me realize… this was for real.

 

The overall results from the Brainsway are impressive. Deep TMS is producing higher remission rates from depression than from medication, and without the potential side effects of long term medication usage. You can find out more about the stats from their website at brainsway.com. The most important thing to look at is their success in treatment resistant depression. Patients who haven’t had success with multiple drugs and even electro-shock therapy (yes, it’s still being used) are finding success with Deep TMS. 

Shortly after posting the initial video to my facebook page, I got an email from Ryan R. (last name withheld) to let me know how well Deep TMS worked for him. He was kind enough to answer some questions about therapy. His answers in block quotes, my questions in italics. 

– What were you being treated for?
I was being treated for long term severe depression and the treatment took place at the Wade Park VA in Cleveland, OH.
 
– What other therapies had you previously tried?
 Other therapies that I had tried were a few different courses of medications, antidepressants (SSRIs for the most part) and regular counseling 
– How effective did you feel TMS was for you? 
 I feel that TCM was very effective for me. When I was in approximately the last quarter of the therapy, my parents were remarking that I was much quicker to smile.
– How were the side effects? Would you say that the side effects were better or worse than other therapies you’d tried?
The only side effect that I can report is that upon the completion of my first couple of sessions, I felt slightly disoriented for a little less than a half hour. Beyond that, there were really no side effects. However, it should be noted that the therapy itself is somewhat unpleasant.
Yvette’s note- I had the helmet on just for a test and it’s not comfortable, they did warn that headaches can be a side effect.
 
– Are you continuing with traditional therapy (seeing a therapist, etc) along with TMS?
-Yes, I am continuing with traditional courses of therapy. In my case, TCM was good for helping reduce the severity of the depression, but is not a magic treatment that will wipe away the ingrained negative patterns of thought that become a trap for people like myself.  
– Would you recommend it to other people based on your experience?
I would recommend this treatment to people, though I would make it clear that it is part of a larger process of becoming well. It will help level you out, but if you don’t put effort into making changes in your life to improve your mental health, by whatever means that are available to you, it is possible that condition could return.
 
He wrote that his candidacy for treatment included that he was suffering from long term severe depression and had failed at least one other course of treatment. Here’s his description of treatment:
 
For the duration of the treatment I had to sit through an electromagnetic field being pulsed through an area of my brain generally agreed to be responsible for many symptoms of depression. This lasted an hour a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. The sensation of the treatment was a pulsing electrical shock beneath the area where the coil was positioned on your scalp that starts out somewhat uncomfortable, but becomes less noticeable after a session or two. After a while I was able to sleep through the session, though that isn’t recommended. 
 
Is it the Ren and Stimpy happy helmet? Not quite, but it might be the next technology in treating both depression and other types of mental illnesses. Dr. Koo told me that they’re researching it right now for OCD, post-partum depression, and other types of mental illnesses. Dr. Koo is a practicing psychiatrist and still practices counseling and traditional psychiatry. She’s been happy to see how far forward the Brainsway TMS device has brought psychiatry. 
 
And so am I. I have a friend with a case of treatment resistant bipolar disorder who’s currently trying out Deep TMS. She’s an opera singer who’s seen her career have to take some long breaks because of the severity of her mental illness. She’s hoping her trips to the doctor’s office to sit with this helmet will be a treatment that finally works. I’m rooting for my friend to find relief from what’s been a long battle.
 
And maybe she can operatically sing the Happy Happy Joy Joy song for us when that happens. 
 
-SciBabe

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14 Comments

  1. I heard this interview on ABC radio a few days ago, and my brain went Ping! This is fascinating stuff. I thought you might like a listen. This unveils another region of the brain that can be affected by TMS. As a woman with Aspergers (a radically different set of emotional challenges to men with Aspergers), I found the ramifications simultaneously unsettling and exciting.
    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/john-elder-robison:-switched-on/7322548

  2. I’ve been following transcranial magnetic stimulation for years, I’m kinda surprised at the state you describe it at however.

  3. ” Yvette’s note- I had the helmet on just for a test and it’s not comfortable, they did warn that headaches can be a side effect ” .
    Hi Yvette , as ( I presume ) you don’t suffer from mental health , wouldn’t you give different ‘ reading ‘ than from a mental health patient ?

  4. While it’s true that TMS has been FDA approved ‘Deep’ TMS was largely approved because it was similar to other TMS devices. ‘Deep’ TMS or ‘H-coil’ TMS isn’t necessarily any better than standard TMS. After a quick look I couldn’t find any papers that compared deep-TMS to just regular TMS for depression treatment. TMS as treatment for depression is also problematic – it’s not very practical, is likely not very long lasting and effect sizes are small.

  5. It’s an interesting concept, I’ll have to look into this further, but if it pans out it could be an important first step in moving away from the necessary evil of pharmaceutical treatments. I depend on my medication, and I’m grateful that I have access to it, but that doesn’t make the side effects any easier to deal with. While we likely won’t be seeing any real changes affected in the next decade or two, it’s nice to think that drugs are not our only option in treating those of us with a mental illness that lies beyond the help of therapy.

  6. This is interesting but, and I’m semi-joking here, but only because I don’t know if this is a real possibility or not– what do you figure is the potential for misuse here?

    I’m not one to say we should ever shy away from a new technology just because it could be misused– but I do think it’s good to be aware.

    So if they can make your hand jump, what else can they do? Just curious.


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  7. P.S. Ask the helmet makers about the possibility of combining the whatever-this-does helmet with a VR HMD for some seriously mind altering therapy possibilities.

    Seriously.

    We should keep an eye on this.

    If it can do what you say it can do, then there may be a lot of good and bad potential here.


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  8. sorry, but the part about well-designed clinical trials and actually determining for which disorders this Tx can be effective is a far cry from the tinfoil brigade.

  9. One of my relatives has been hospitalized numerous times with psychosis and severe depression. She’d go off her meds (they caused enormous weight gain) or the meds needed frequent evaluation.
    Eventually they tried the old standby, electroconvulsive therapy. Touch wood, that seems to have worked for at least a year now, although she’s had a bit of memory loss from it. Maybe this helmet can give a similar effect without needing general anesthetic.

  10. Yeah, OK, it’s good to be skeptical of anything new, until proven by the scientific method. My contribution here is not as a scientist, only as an interested observer sharing anecdotal observations.
    A friend from college days (40 years ago) who I’ve been in contact with since then has been suffering from depression for at least the past thirty years. He’s been on various medications since then, with increasing different concurrent meds and dosages. Ten months ago he was an absolute mess, a complete basket case from overprescribed meds, in my opinion. The quacks- er, doctors were talking about committing him if his condition didn’t improve soon. His wife took the bull by the balls and challenged his shrink to find a better solution than thirty pills per day. The shrink admitted his, er, lack of depth in this particular case and found a colleague who suggested that the Happy Helmet might be an effective treatment, although she had no particular experience with this treatment.
    My friend went for it, yes it was six weeks, five days per week. During this period my contact with him and her was only by telephone, but I could tell he was sounding more and more like the guy I knew in college. Sure, his meds were reduced during this period, which no doubt contributed to him sounding more lucid and hopeful for the future, which was a considerable improvement from not remembering which day of the week it was.
    The TMS ended some five months ago, and he is now enrolled in college classes which will expand his professional skill set and get him among the Gainfully Enployed again soon and off “permanent” disability payments. Granted, these are just my observations from a distance, but whatever the actual technology involved, he is greatly improved and well on his way to becoming the old friend I knew forty years ago.

    Food for thought.

  11. For all the skeptic who doesn’t believe, I suggest you to read here – http://www.brainsway.com/why-brainsway
    Every thing is well studied, and the research was double blind sham controlled study that was approved by the FDA and was done in more then 10 countries. The results were better than in the superficial TMS trial.
    I also refer you to Brainsway clinics map that includes all clinics in USA. You can also find there short videos with patients testimonials – https://www.zeemaps.com/map?group=1084780

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