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A magnetic device that treats depression is now in clinical use at the VA hospital in Charleston

Dr. Mark George

Dr. Mark George is the leading researcher in "transcranial magnetic stimulation," a promising therapy for those with treatment-resistant depression. (Provided James Arrowood/Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center Public Affairs Office)

For many with depression, treatment can mean a frustrating and expensive cycle of medications and therapies. But a team at the VA hospital in Charleston has brought its patients a step closer to successfully treating the disease with magnets.

Dr. Mark George, a VA doctor and a leading researcher in "transcranial magnetic stimulation," brought a specialized magnetic device into clinical use at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center on Feb. 2.

The technology works by creating magnetic fields, which penetrate the brain up to three centimeters deep. The fields induce a current in the brain tissue to activate nerve cells. 

"We stimulate this certain part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and if we do that for several weeks, we can get people un-depressed," said George, who invented the treatment in the 1990s, in a prepared statement.

The device costs between $80,000 and $100,000.

In a clinical trial, 60 percent of patients reported their depression improved or even lifted completely. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, already in use at the Medical University of South Carolina, has proven successful and cost-efficient enough that VA has purchased 40 devices for use across the country.

"We finally have another new tool in the toolbox." said Kate Beaver, a research nurse at the VA hospital. 

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The results can be life-changing for some patients. The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center's first clinical patient to benefit from the technology, Percy Jones, reported feeling better after a week and a half of treatment.

"You feel like you have a new lease on life," Beaver said. 

The device may not be available to veterans who have shrapnel or bullet fragments in their head or neck, face tattoos, or stents in the neck or brain. The device may interfere with any kind of metal in the neck or head, Beaver said. Success may be limited if other illnesses exist, and it will be tougher to treat if the patient has been depressed for longer, she said. 

She said the VA hospital could begin treating four new people every four to six weeks. 

"I anticipate a waiting list," she said.

In a previous version of this article, a patient was misidentified. The article has been updated to correct the error. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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