New symptom-free treatment helps depression, reduce military suicides

Published: Oct. 24, 2016 at 3:07 PM EDT
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News 12 NBC 26 / Monday, October 24, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A new therapy is changing the way soldiers are treated for depression, PTSD, and possibly even suicide.

Fort Gordon is one of only three places in the Army that does it. It's called TMS, or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

The best part? There's no medication and there are no side effects.

One retire soldier going through the treatment for about a year says it's changed his life.

"It's life-altering. It really is. I wish I had this brain 20 years ago," Aaron Heflin said.

Heflin spent 20 years in the Army. He's been on anti-depressants almost as long.

"Depression is a destroyer of your life. It just takes your life away from you one tiny bit at a time," Heflin said.

A new treatment called TMS is helping him put the pieces back together. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation is just a big word for a machine that sends magnetic pulses to the brain.

"There's a circuit in the brain that we've dubbed the depressogenic circuit. By activating that circuit you can get back to normal function," Eisenhower Army Medical Center's Dr. Christopher Hines said.

Dr. Hines is Heflin's psychiatrist. He says TMS could change the game in mood disorders.

"Oh, I think it's huge. Really I think we're just on the cusp of understanding all the things we're going to be able to do for it," Dr. Hines said.

The machine looks kind of like a dentist's chair. All patients have to do is sit there for about 45 minutes.

"The only thing they do is immobilize your head and then the plate touches the part of your brain, or the part of your skull where you're going to be treated," Heflin explained. "There are really no moving parts to it, but it does feel like it's poking you at first, like a finger tapping you. But you look at it and it's completely flat. After one or two treatments, it starts to fade away so you don't really notice it."

During the treatment, the patient is awake, there's no medication, and there are no side effects afterwards. Heflin says it could be done on a lunch break. He says it's completely changed how he lives his life.

"It's like being turned from maybe a Type B personality to Type A, whereas before I used to sit back and just let life happen. Now, I fell more engaged like I want to go out and make something happen," Heflin said.

While this treatment could be used on anyone, Dr. Hines says it's especially helpful for soldiers.

"Soldiers particularly need to be at their best, and there are significant limitations deploying on medications," he said.

Heflin's deployments are now over, but thanks to TMS, the battles with his mind are, too.

Augusta University also provides this treatment, but when it comes to the military, Ft. Gordon is one of only three places who offers it.

Eisenhower Army Medical Center is doing a study on how TMS could help reduce military suicides. Dr. Hines says there's already some evidence it helps decrease suicidal thoughts in the first day or two.