Magnetic stimulation of the brain: An update

In recent decades, scientists have developed electrical and magnetic devices for observing the brain in action — remembering, deciding, experiencing emotion — in ways that were once unimaginable. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) are among the most revolutionary of these techniques. Changing brain activity in any meaningful or lasting way by electromagnetic means has proved more difficult, but glimmers of progress are appearing.

The chief established electromagnetic technique used in psychiatry is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), in which a strong electrical current applied to the scalp induces generalized seizures (spreading to the whole brain) for the relief of severe intractable depression and other psychiatric disorders. The treatment is highly effective but produces short-term confusion and occasionally some memory loss. Patients often must be hospitalized and always require general anesthesia and muscle relaxants.

Less disruptive alternatives may now be provided by a group of techniques involving magnetic stimulation that are coming into wider use.

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