Janice Blake was depressed and psychotic. She saw imaginary people in her food and wouldn’t eat. She believed an imposter was posing as her brother. She was on the brink of committing suicide, a hopeless woman spiraling into the depths of her mental illness after the medications that had helped her cope for 26 years could no longer keep her sane. Mrs. Blake’s family then offered her a choice in hopes of saving her life: get placed in a long-term mental health facility or undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) at UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute. “I was afraid to try ECT,” said Mrs. Blake, 65, whose perception of the treatment involved patients being painfully shocked with electricity. Yet Mrs. Blake reluctantly agreed, and quickly discovered ECT was nothing like the disturbing Hollywood depictions she had seen. After only a few treatments, her paranoia and depression dissipated, restoring the rational, smiling person her family feared would never return. “It did save my life,” Mrs. Blake said. “It just brought me back to who I was a long time ago. Fun-loving, happy, and outgoing.” Although the therapy can improve severe depression, ECT has been associated with temporary memory loss – a side effect that has contributed to its stigma and pushed UT Southwestern to test a new form of brain stimulation that may entice other patients to seek help.The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is funding a five-year clinical trial that expands on preliminary research indicating that an alternative brain stimulation method involving magnetic fields can ease depression without cognitive side effects. If proven effective, magnetic seizure therapy (MST) could usher in a new era of depression treatment that turns these therapies from a desperate last resort to an accepted, frontline option for severely depressed patients.
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