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The History Behind TMS

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Like most scientific discoveries, the development of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation was the cumulative result of hundreds of years of research.

Luigi Galvani, an Italian physician, first discovered “animal electricity” in 1780 when he and his wife applied static electricity to the legs of a dead frog and noticed them twitch in response. Galvani was the forefather of electrophysiology, the study of how electromagnetic fields interact with and affect living cells, tissues and organisms.

Roughly 50 years later, Michael Faraday, an English chemist with little formal education, revolutionized the study of physics with his work on electricity and magnetism. He went on to become one of the most influential scientists in history. Faraday created a magnetic field by running electricity through a coil, and he used it to create an electrical action from a non-electrical source.

Fast forward to the 20th century, Dr. Anthony Barker, a scientist in England, was conducting research on nerve stimulation. He was looking for a way to conduct an electrical current through tissue without losing strength along the way.

He discovered that the magnetic field created with Faraday’s coil provided the perfect vehicle, and his team set about building the first TMS device. Barker then shifted his attention away from trying to stimulate a muscle directly and began researching how stimulating the brain could move muscles in the body.

In 1985, he and fellow researchers practiced using the device on each other. They placed the single-coil device over the head to stimulate the brain’s motor strip. A small hand twitch from a volunteer marked the first-time an electromagnetic pulse had been successfully used to stimulate the brain.

Inspired by Barker’s work, more than 90 studies over 10 years focused on how TMS could be used to treat depression. The ability to stimulate neurons and generate endogenous neurotransmitters in a non-invasive and painless way opened the door to a new way to treat depression without the side effects of medication or Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).

Dr. Shoogo Ueno, a biomagnetics professor in Japan, suggested using two coils in the shape of a figure eight. Not only would this strengthen the current, but it could localize treatment and allow for targeted pulses to be sent to distinct areas of the brain. Barker and his team built six TMS machines, but they couldn’t keep up with the flood of requests for devices from around the world.

Choosing not to patent the device, Barker’s team licensed the technology to Novametrix in the United States. This company later became Magstim, the current provider of the TMS devices used by Community Psychiatry.

Today, there are thousands of TMS devices throughout the world, and the application of TMS technology continues to evolve. Research is underway to examine the effectiveness of TMS for a wide range of medical conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, smoking cessation, chronic pain, PTSD and more.

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