LEOMINSTER — Samantha Comeau didn’t look at all nervous as a large, plastic helmet was fastened to her head and a technician explained that magnetic waves were about to stimulate her brain’s mood center.
They would know it was working, the technician explained, if Comeau’s right hand started twitching on its own.
“It’s a muscle twitch and then you feel this light tapping in your head,” Comeau explained shortly after watching her hand moving by itself.
While the involuntary muscle movements might be fun to watch, it’s that tapping feeling that really counts in deep transcranial magnetic stimulation, or dTMS. The treatment has become an increasingly popular option for people battling depression since being cleared by the FDA in 2013 and the city’s first dTMS clinic was officially opened at HealthAlliance Hospital Thursday evening.
Achieve TMS East opened its first office in Northampton less than two years ago. The new Leominster location is its 11th.
“There’s a high percentage of people with depression and a high percentage of people with treatment-resistant depression,” said Marjorie Pierce, Achieve’s director of operations. “The communities we go into are places where people feel like they could use the services and there usually aren’t a lot of services like this.
Over the course of the six-week, non-invasive treatment, patients will wear the dTMS helmet for 20-minute stretches, five days a week. During each session, the patient’s brain is exposed to brief magnetic fields with a strength similar to what is used in an MRI.
Dr. Rebecca Knapp, one of Achieve’s psychiatrists, said dTMS has proven to be successful in roughly 75 percent of the patients, many of whom, she said, are part of a “treatment-resistant population.
“These are people who have made their best attempts at therapy, they’ve tried lots of different medications,” she said. “They’ve done everything they can do to get better and are still suffering from depression.”
Until the Leominster office was opened, Achieve’s nearest location was in Worcester. Pierce said five local residents have begun treatment in Leominster and are starting to show positive results.
While both Pierce and Knapp admit that dTMS can seem like a very different approach to mental illness, especially when compared to traditional methods of therapy or medication, they said most patients who contact them are at a point where they are looking for anything that could relieve them of their symptoms.
“Even with the ambivalence that does exist, a lot of people we see are so desperate to feel better that they’re willing to take the chance,” said Pierce. “Most of them gladly walk into this scenario because they need relief and nothing else has helped.”
Though it may currently be unfamiliar to many patients in the U.S., Knapp said dTMS has existed in research labs since the 1980s and been in use with patients in Europe for close to 20 years.
For now, dTMS has only been approved in the U.S as a treatment for depression. Knapp said the FDA is also expected to clear it as a way of treating obsessive compulsive disorder later this year.