PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — After three concussions and the death of his mother, Peter Bergman went somewhere he didn’t want to be.
“A path down that depression and anxiety hole,” he said.
Depression is more than just sadness.
“Low mood, sleep disturbance, lack of energy levels, lack of concentration, and feelings of guilt, poor self-worth, and thoughts of hopelessness, and life not worth living,” said Dr. Amit Chopra, a Allegheny Health Network psychiatrist.
While Bergman wasn’t suicidal, his symptoms of depression affected his day-to-day function.
“I wasn’t really able to concentrate on schoolwork or anything. Most of the days, I kind of just felt empty, didn’t really care about what happened to me. Started missing a lot of classes,” Bergman said.
He tried several different antidepressants, which either didn’t work or increased his anxiety.
“It was at the point where I was just like, I guess this is it. Like, I, nothing’s really working. I guess I’m gonna have to just deal with it,” Bergman said.
“Unfortunately, a third of patients who come to us for treatment of depression don’t respond to these medications,” Chopra said.
Shock therapy is an effective option, but it requires anesthesia and monitoring, which isn’t always ideal.
“That’s one of the steps that we take as a last resort,” Chopra said.
So a psychiatrist family friend of Bergman’s suggested transcranial magnetic stimulation as a new treatment. The technique was pioneered in 1985, and FDA approved for major depression in 2008. But doctors in Pittsburgh have just started offering it.
It’s for people who have tried four medications without success.
“At that point, I was like, might as well,” Bergman said.
As Bergman describes it, the psychiatrist likened it to a physical therapy stim pack.
“It was gonna kinda work out the areas of the brain that kind of deal with mood disorders,” Bergman said.
A helmet goes on the patient’s head, with loud clicking when the magnet is on. The coiled magnets rapidly change their magnetic field.
“That induces a small current in the front part of the left brain,” Chopra said.
The doctors first have to find their landmarks, so they begin by stimulating at the motor cortex, where the magnet creates a strong enough current to make the thumb move. Then they move six centimeters forward, and that area is the target to treat depression.
“It almost looked like a hairdryer from like a salon, or almost like Magneto’s little helmet from the X-Men films,” Bergman said.
“They’re perfectly awake. There’s no anesthesia, no sedation. They’ll talk to you, and they can sit in the chair with the coil on, and they can read their book or look at their phone, and the treatment will go on for 20 minutes,” Chopra said.
Typically, the treatments are every day for 36 days, with most patients seeing changes.
“Their facial expression can change. They can look less depressed, but they may not see the actual change for up to a couple weeks,” Chopra said. “Seven out of ten people would have at least some response.”
Bergman had his treatment a year ago in Charleston, West Virginia. Because of his work schedule, he went only on weekends for several weeks in a row. He noticed his symptoms of depression gradually improved.
“Eventually, I could kind of see, it like, oh, wow, it was like a veil lifted up in front of me, in a way,” Bergman said.
“Best response would be complete remission of depression, and we do see that one in three people would have remission from depression, and two in three people would have 50 percent reduction in symptom severity,” Chopra said.
“Before I would just stay in bed most of the day, sleep, wasn’t very active by any means,” says Peter, “But now, [I] get up early, go running,” Bergman said.
The treatment is not available for patients who have seizures or any metal in their head or neck.