The Neurobiology of TMS
Written by: Dr. Sean David Vanniasingham
Principles of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
In the 1800s, world-renowned English physicist Michael Faraday discovered the principles of electromagnetic induction. Fast forward to the 21st century, Faraday’s discovery was harnessed into the clinical practice of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for the treatment of mood disorders. Based on Faraday’s Law, TMS can stimulate brain neuronal circuits with tiny electrical currents induced by a changing magnetic field.
Application of TMS in Singapore
In Singapore, the practical application of TMS is employed in the form of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). In rTMS, magnetic pulses are delivered in trains at specific frequencies. “Fast” (high frequency e.g. 10Hz) stimulation increases cortical excitability for the treatment of depression. Whereas “slow” (low frequency e.g. 1Hz) stimulation reduces cortical excitability for treating anxiety disorders. Furthermore, TMS can be targeted at focused regions of the cortex for superior precision treatment of specific conditions e.g. rTMS at 1Hz to the right orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) reduces intrusive obsessions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Mood disturbances such as depression are increasingly understood as disorders of connectivity in neural networks linking cortical and subcortical grey structures of the brain. Functional brain imaging has shown dysfunction in cortical regions such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), as well as deep grey matter structures including the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, hippocampus and hypothalamus. These brain circuits are pivotal for executive functioning, regulation of emotions, reward processing and preservation of memory and cognition. They also link the nervous system to the endocrine system, which mediates the body’s response to stress.
Neuroplasticity and TMS
Evidence suggests that TMS induces neuroplastic changes in these circuits. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. TMS helps readjust neurotransmitter (e.g. serotonin and dopamine) levels in a variety of brain regions. TMS also appears to exert a neuroprotective effect on the brain. Research has shown that TMS decreases brain inflammatory factors reducing oxidative stress on the brain. TMS also boosts the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), encouraging neuronal growth in regions such as the hippocampus which is vital for learning and memory. It is postulated that the anti-depressant properties of TMS may also help in normalizing the body’s neuroendocrine stress response system.
rTMS has achieved its place on international treatment guidelines as an augmentation treatment modality to be strongly considered in treatment-resistant depression. It is reported that 30-40% of depressed patients may have inadequate responses to anti-depressant medication treatment. The direct neuronal effects of rTMS may explain why rTMS may work for this group of patients.
rTMS for OCD Treatment and other neurological disorders
In May 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the NeuroStar TMS system as an adjunct for treating adult patients suffering from OCD. Promising research is ongoing for the clinical application of TMS in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addictions, chronic pain, insomnia and many other neurological disorders.
TMS and recovery
With further advancements in TMS research and the incorporation of TMS in routine clinical practice, there is strong hope for recovery and the regaining of optimal functioning for patients afflicted by complex neuropsychiatric conditions.
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Paul Fitzgerald, Professor of Psychiatry, Monash University
The Conversation AU, published May 13 2021