Thu Jan 30, 2003
By Alison McCook
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Schizophrenics who hear imaginary voices that are not quieted by medication could find some relief in an experimental procedure that directs magnetic waves toward certain brain regions, a small study suggests.
Among 12 patients who received up to 16 minutes of magnetic stimulation for 9 days, nine said their hallucinations had improved after treatment. People reported that they were hearing voices less often and were less disturbed by such hallucinations when they did appear.
In contrast, similar improvements were reported by only two of the 12 participants who had "sham" treatment that involved a similar procedure, but not magnetic stimulation.
"Patients find (magnetic therapy) to be a significant relief from these often debilitating symptoms," study author Dr. Ralph E. Hoffman of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, told Reuters Health.
Hoffman cautioned, however, that magnetic stimulation remains experimental, and so is not yet available to most patients in the US.
"This is still at the level of research, as opposed to something patients can call up and get," he said.
Hoffman and his colleagues report the findings in the January issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Up to 70% of people with schizophrenia say they have auditory hallucinations, which generally involve hearing imaginary "voices." These hallucinations are often disturbing and, for some, can contribute to violent or suicidal behavior.
While many are helped with medication, around one quarter of schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations only partially improve with drugs, according to Hoffman and his colleagues.
All of the patients in their study were having auditory hallucinations up to five times each day before magnetic therapy, despite having tried numerous medications.
The researchers targeted magnetic therapy to brain regions that previous studies have indicated play a role in auditory hallucinations.
In earlier research, Hoffman and his colleagues had some success in quieting auditory hallucinations in schizophrenics who received a shorter course of magnetic therapy, lasting only 4 days.
However, all the patients who improved after 4 days of treatment had a resurgence of symptoms anywhere from 4 days to 2 months after treatment.
In the current study, more than half of patients maintained their improvements for at least 15 weeks.
A comparison of the findings from both studies suggests that the longer the treatment, the better for patients, Hoffman said in an interview. However, in both groups, it may be necessary to repeat the procedure, he noted.
Hoffman said that magnetic therapy may work by calming the nerves that, under other circumstances, would become excited and lead people to hallucinate. Magnetic therapy "is actually reducing excitability of neurons that are involved in the production of these hallucinations," he explained.
Patients did not report many side effects from the treatment, Hoffman's team notes in the report. Some experienced headaches that disappeared on their own or were easy to treat, and patients reported feeling lightheaded for a few minutes after the procedure.
Importantly, none of the patients seemed to experience any changes in mental functioning as a result of the treatment, Hoffman said.
The researcher said that he and his colleagues continue to investigate magnetic therapy, testing the procedure in a larger group of patients and trying to discover which brain regions, when targeted by magnetic therapy, result in the biggest improvements in auditory hallucinations.
SOURCE: Archives of General Psychiatry 2003;60:49-56.